International Court of Justice ruling in USA v. Nicaragua (27 June 1986)

This is one of the most famous rulings of the International Court of Justice.  The ICJ is the supreme arbitration organ of the United Nations and the successor to the Permanent Court of International Justice created by the League of Nations after World War I.  Its rulings represent the very apex of international law, both structurally and in terms of the prestige of the Court which, unlike the modern international criminal tribunals, has shown itself to be largely (though not always) resistant to political interference.

The case concerned the well-publicised US support for the anti-Sandanista “Contras” in Nicaragua.  The Court ruled in Nicaragua’s favour, arguing that its sovereignty had been violated by the American intervention.  It discussed whether such an intervention might be justified in view of the claim that Nicaragua was at that stage about to establish “a totalitarian communist dictatorship”, as the American Congress and government has claimed, and it found that nothing in the internal political arrangements of a state could justify intervention.

However the régime in Nicaragua be defined, adherence by a State to any particular doctrine does not constitute a violation of customary international law; to hold otherwise would make nonsense of the fundamental principle of State sovereignty, on which the whole of international law rests, and the freedom of choice of the political, social, economic and cultural system of a State.  Consequently, Nicaragua’s domestic policy options, even assuming that they correspond to the description given of them by the Congress finding, cannot justify on the legal plane the various actions of the Respondent complained of. The Court cannot contemplate the creation of a new rule opening up a right of intervention by one State against another on the ground that the latter has opted for some particular ideology or political system. (International Court of Justice, Case Concerning Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua, 27 June 1986, Paragraph 263.)

In its own official summary of the judgement, the Court dealt with the arguments made in favour of “humanitarian intervention” by the United States.  Its ruling is a clear condemnation of this doctrine, at least as it is usually practised.  The Court ruled:  “If the provision of “humanitarian assistance” is to escape condemnation as an intervention in the internal affairs of another State, it must be limited to the purposes hallowed in the practice of the Red Cross, and above all be given without discrimination” (paragraph 2). It later also condemned the invocation of alleged human rights abuses in justification of the intervention:  “With regard  more specifically to alleged violations of human rights relied on by the United States, the Court considers that the use of force by the United States could not be the appropriate method to monitor or ensure respect for such rights” (paragraph 6).  The Court ruled that, “Intervention is wrongful when it uses, in regard to such choices (i.e. choices made by States regarding their political, social, economic and cultural system, and foreign policy) methods of coercion, particularly force, either in the form of military action or in the indirect form of support for subversive activities in another State.”

As the judgement itself said (paragraph 268):

In any event, while the United States might form its own appraisal of the situation as to respect for human rights in Nicaragua, the use of force could not be the appropriate method to monitor or ensure such respect. With regard to the steps actually taken, the protection of human rights, a strictly humanitarian objective, cannot be compatible with the mining of ports, the destruction of oil installations, or again with the training, arming and equipping of the contras. The Court concludes that the argument derived from the preservation of human rights in Nicaragua cannot afford a legal justification for the conduct of the United States, and cannot in any event be reconciled with the legal strategy of the respondent State, which is based on the right of collective self-defence.The full text of the judgement can be read here

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