When the pope rebuked the U.S. at the World Court

March 18, 1997|By Howard N. Meyer

NEW YORK -- It is too soon to say that a projected meeting of John Paul II with Fidel Castro will undermine U.S. policy toward Cuba. After all, the pope's 1985 visit to The Hague to express support for and faith in the World Court, as Washington was denigrating it, had little effect, but only because the media ignored it. That won't happen in Havana.

A review of that 1985 papal courtesy call demonstrates the absurdity of the idea, recently recirculated in a book by Carl Bernstein, of a ''close working alliance'' between the Vatican and the CIA.

In 1984, Nicaraguan harbors were mined during a guerrilla campaign waged against the Marxist ''Sandinista'' government. It soon became evident that the CIA was responsible for the mining; World Court jurist Stephen Schwebel later confirmed this in his dissent to the ruling in the lawsuit subsequently filed by Nicaragua.

Sen. Barry Goldwater called the mining a violation of international law. Hence there was concern when Nicaragua sued the United States at the World Court, asking for a ruling that the mining was illegal under international law and challenging the entire U.S. enterprise of training, financing and arming the Nicaraguan ''Contra'' rebels.

As the papers filing the suit were on their way to The Hague, where the World Court sits in a ''Peace Palace'' contributed by an American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, Washington tried to derail the case on jurisdictional grounds. It filed a notice seeking to withdraw, as to Central America, American consent to the court's jurisdiction as formalized by President Truman 40 years earlier. The State Department mounted an all-out effort to persuade the court to throw the case out.

Simultaneously, there began a pervasive campaign by the U.S. to undermine the court's credibility -- as if to cry, ''Kill the umpire'' even before the first ball was pitched. The American ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, told one reporter, ''The court, quite frankly, is not what its name suggests, an international court of justice. It's a semi-legal, semi-juridical, semi-political body which nations sometimes accept and sometimes don't.''

But the court would not dismiss the suit; it ruled that it did have jurisdiction and would hear Nicaragua's case. Washington took the loss hard. It declined to defend the nation's conduct in a trial. Denouncing the court in a bitterly worded statement, the State Department threatened to withdraw completely -- not just for Central America -- Truman's consent to be sued in the court by any nation, anywhere, that had made a similar pledge.

Shortly thereafter came John Paul II's pastoral visit to The Netherlands. He had accepted an invitation to address the World Court. It was a high ceremonial occasion: The queen, the royal family and the diplomatic corps were present.

In the context of the Nicaragua jurisdictional ruling, the court's most significant in many years, the pontiff voiced opinions quite at variance with Ms. Kirkpatrick's dismissive views and the State Department's harsh critique.

''The International Court of Justice has intervened in difficult areas and has managed to do more than simply apply existing law,'' John Paul said. ''It has also contributed to the development of the law. The decisions of the court have not infrequently had a wide-ranging scope because they are to be seen in the framework of international law and legal principles.''

A double hit

That was not all. The State Department's threat to withdraw entirely from the court's compulsory jurisdiction took a double hit. First, arguing, for a ''totally effective judicial authority in a peaceful world,'' the pope urged that there be ''wider acceptance of the so-called compulsory jurisdiction of the court.''

Then came a remarkably frank response to the American threat to refuse obligatory jurisdiction: ''Even the International Court of Justice comes under pressure designed to prevent it from transcending ideologies and interests. . . . They must resist such pressures and must be assisted in their efforts to do so.''

The pope's unusually pointed remarks were heard only by the courtroom audience of royalty, diplomats and lawyers. They were read only by subscribers to the English-language edition of L'Osservatore Romano and the court's press releases. If George Shultz, then the secretary of state, heard about, it he was unmoved. Later that year U.S. consent to compulsory jurisdiction was, as threatened, canceled across the board.

It would be preposterous to claim that John Paul was sympathetic to the Sandinista regime, or that he was ''soft'' on Marxism. But neither was he a witting or unwitting ''asset'' of the CIA. His praise of the World Court, he said, was because he wanted to ''judge history on the basis of truth.'' Would a ''close working ally'' have so distanced himself from the U.S. State Department's attitude to the court and the international rule of law in 1985?

Howard N. Meyer, a retired attorney, is completing a book on the history and work of the World Court.

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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