United States refusal to submit to World Court deliberations on the US role in mining Nicaragua's harbors has dealt a serious blow to the court and to the United Nations, many diplomats say in private.
''Not a crippling blow, but a serious one nonetheless,'' these Western and Latin American diplomats say.
The action is the first US refusal to recognize the right of the International Court of Justice to hear an international case since the US recognized its jurisdiction in 1946. The court is the official juridical arm of the United Nations.
''The United States has been the main supporter of the court and of the principle of international arbitration. It has now set a bad example and may live to regret it,'' a high-ranking Western diplomat says. Other diplomats who share basic US objectives say privately they regret to see the US sink to the level of its adversaries.
''The main damage to the court and to the US itself is moral and political,'' says the representative of a close US ally. ''Coming on the heels of the US veto at the Security Council, which blocked a resolution condemning the mining of Nicaragua's ports and of reports of direct CIA involvement in the mining, the US partial repudiation of the international court will appear to many as an admission of guilt.''
There are many nations, however, that refuse to submit to the UN court's jurisdiction. In fact, only one-third of the 157 UN member states have agreed to submit to World Court jurisdiction.
Nicaragua recognizes the court's jurisdiction ''unconditionally.''
Communist nations, although not opposed to court arbitration in principle, have in practice rejected a system requiring them to agree in advance to accept decisions.
France removed itself from the court's jurisdiction in the early '70s when New Zealand and Australia asked the court to rule on French nuclear tests in the South Pacific. (France recently signaled its intention to eventually reaffirm its recognition of the court.) West Germany has not officially accepted the court's jurisdiction but has submitted to its rulings nonetheless.
Whether the US move is in itself legal is an open question. When the US first recognized the court's jurisdiction in 1946, it stated that it would continue that status unless the government notified the court that it was withdrawing recognition. Notice of withdrawal would have to be given six months before the withdrawal took effect.