Criminal law and contra aid

SAY a person hands another person a loaded gun, and the second person then harms or kills a third person with this gun. In criminal law the first person is also legally (and morally) responsible for the harm if he knew, or should have known, it was likely to occur. Extrapolate to a larger setting.

If one country provides guns and military training to individuals in another country, and if those who have been provided with military hardware and training then harm or kill innocent civilians, the country providing the assistance should be legally and morally responsible for this harm if it knew or should have known that this harm was likely.

I am referring to the situation in Nicaragua. The US is currently providing $100 million in assistance to the contras trying to overthrow the Sandinista regime. Moreover, the US armed forces have been in the process of training a substantial number of contras.

What is still unclear is how much money has already been given to the contras by United States citizens and corporations.

Despite the Reagan administration's depiction of the contras as ``freedom fighters,'' evidence to the contrary is well documented. Americas Watch concludes that ``the contras are pursuing their military campaign by systematically violating the basic rights of Nicaraguan civilians.''

Still, the Reagan administration plans to seek $105 million more for the contras for the coming fiscal year.

What is so clear on the domestic level - that one person providing a gun to another can be legally and morally responsible for the harm caused by the other person - is often unclear in the international arena. Clouding our thinking about moral and legal duties in the international realm are such well-accepted but seldom defined notions as ``national security'' and ``national interest.''

National security and national interest are legitimate concerns; in some instances their aims are worthy of pursuit. But the human consequences of such action must also be weighed.

Missing in the contra aid debate thus far is any discussion of the moral implications of United States aid to the contras. Perhaps such aid is in the national interest; perhaps such aid is necessary to avoid some greater harm if the Sandinistas remain in power. Both are worthy of consideration.

But the terrible human rights record compiled thus far by the contras cannot be ignored. Neither can the connection between the United States and the actions of the contras.

The US has provided the contras with a ``loaded gun'' in the form of military hardware and training. The contras have used this ``gun'' systematically to harm and kill innocent civilians. As a result, the US is morally (and legally) implicated in the horrors committed by the contras.

This fact should be of central concern in the contra aid debate. It should also be of prime importance to the American people.

Mark Gibney is assistant professor of political science at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.

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