July 01, 1998
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, July 1998
The United States played the spoiler’s role in last week’s negotiations in Rome for an International Criminal Court. It seems our government did everything it could do to make sure that such a court, if created, would be not be able to prosecute U.S. officials.
In other words, it’s okay to have an international court to try people for war crimes, and hold everyone to the same standard, so long as that standard doesn’t apply to Americans. A barrage of excuses for this “some are more equal than others” position were offered. The court would become “politicized,” American troops on peacekeeping missions would be subject to malicious prosecution, and so on.
The real reasons are, unfortunately, much simpler. The United States government would like to reserve the right to use any means necessary, including criminal acts of violence, to impose its will on other nations and people. This should not be taken as a reflection on the American people, who have generally opposed such foreign interventions, at least when they become aware of them. But our foreign policy establishment knows its history, and these people don’t want to wind up in the defendant’s chair at an international tribunal, having the gory details of their crimes splashed across the front pages of the world’s newspapers.
We do not have to dig very deep into this history to find the reasons for our government’s attitude toward such a court. In 1984 Nicaragua sued the United States in the World Court (the International Court of Justice at the Hague, in the Netherlands), for damages inflicted by the U.S.-sponsored para-military force known as the Contras. The Court ruled, in 1986, that the U.S. government had broken international law through its support for the Contras, and ordered the United States to pay reparations. The amount was not specified, but estimates ran as high as $17 billion dollars at the time.
Although the U.S. is a signatory to the Court, and in fact had won a judgement there just a few years earlier against Iran for the taking of American hostages, our government refused to pay any damages or even recognize the Court’s decision.
To understand these actions, some more history is helpful. United States officials committed these crimes as part of a decade-long effort to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. That government had come to power in a 1979 revolution, led by the Sandinistas, against a U.S.-backed dictatorship. The dictatorship stretched all the way back to the 1930s, through various members of the Somoza family, when it was established by invading American troops. The United States supported this brutal dictatorship for half a century, right up to final battles in the weeks before it was overthrown.
The Sandinistas took their name from Augusto Cesar Sandino, a Nicaraguan patriot who fought against the American occupying forces in the 1920s and 30s. In their first year or two in power they quickly turned the war-ravaged country into the fastest growing economy in Central America, with hundreds of millions of dollars of aid from all over the world. They went on to win awards from the United Nations for improvements in literacy and health care.
All of this only increased the ire of the U.S. government, which resented its loss of control over this tiny, impoverished nation. In 1981 the CIA began organizing, arming, and training the Contras, and funneling huge sums of money to them. The Contras attacked rural health clinics and killed doctors, teachers, and thousands of civilians. Their reputation for brutality and torture grew so heinous even within the United States that Congress eventually cut off funding to them. That’s when the Reagan administration started running the war from the basement of the White House, and raising funds by selling arms to Iran– hence the scandal “Contragate.” It is important to remember that these efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan government continued in full force even after the Sandinistas were democratically elected in 1984.
So it was not just the actions for which the World Court found the U.S. government liable that were criminal. Our entire foreign policy in Nicaragua, for more than half a century, was criminal. And unfortunately the case of Nicaragua is anything but unique.
Until there is a drastic reversal in U.S. foreign policy, we can be sure of one thing: the United States will never support an International Criminal Court that has the power to prosecute the war crimes of any and all nations.