US credibility and the World Court

PRESIDENT Reagan needs a hot line to an international lawyer. The United States recently rejected World Court jurisdiction over any disputes involving Central America for the next two years. By doing so the Reagan administration has finally eliminated America's strongest weapon in the enforcement of international law: its credibility.

Nicaragua, counseled by international lawyers Abram Chayes of Harvard and Ian Brownlie of Oxford, filed a complaint with the International Court of Justice, or World Court, charging the US with ''training, supplying and directing military and paramilitary actions against the people and Government of Nicaragua , resulting in extensive loss of lives and property'' with the intent ''to overthrow or destabilize the Government of Nicaragua.''

Having learned in advance that Nicaragua was filing this complaint, White House counselors decided that Washington could not be bothered with Nicaragua's reliance on the ''propaganda'' of international law. So for the first time since the US ratified the charter of the World Court in 1946, America abandoned the court rather than defend the legality of covert operations directed against Nicaragua.

The administration's action is most unfortunate:

First, the American reservation invites other governments to employ the same tactic when confronted with legal challenges over the conduct of their foreign policies. Only four other countries have previously filed such reservations.

Granted, many nations, like the Soviet Union and Iran, have never submitted to the ''compulsory jurisdiction'' of the World Court, as the US did 38 years ago. Washington has nonetheless brought suits against these countries in the World Court to condemn their lawlessness, even though the court wields no enforcement powers.

Second, the rules of the World Court recognize the principle of reciprocity. This means that other countries that submit to the jurisdiction of the court can invoke precisely the same exemption claimed by the US. They can thus prohibit any suit by the US against any one of them regarding any activity in Central America for the next two years.

Regardless of what happens in Central America - be it a Nicaraguan invasion of any neighboring country, the emplacement of Soviet nuclear weapons in Nicaragua, an Iranian-style seizure of American diplomats as hostages, the unjust expropriation of American businesses, or whatever - the US has no recourse to the World Court.

Third, until last week the Senate bought the argument that American assistance (via the Central Intelligence Agency) to the rebel forces in Nicaragua was legal because (but only if) its sole intent was to stop Nicaragua's Sandinista government from illegally funneling military aid to guerrillas fighting the El Salvador government.

The illegality of any Nicaraguan assistance to the Salvadorean rebels could have been used years ago to condemn Nicaragua in the World Court in the same manner Nicaragua has now condemned the United States.

The evidence increasingly shows the CIA supporting the anti-Sandinista rebels in their attacks on Nicaraguan villages and industrial sites and in the mining of Nicaraguan ports.

Since the CIA-backed rebels seek to overthrow the Sandinista government, the United States has become the patron of that illegal objective.

The real reason the administration ran from the judicial battle is simple: Any covert CIA operation aimed at Nicaragua would have been publicly debated before the World Court. And the administration is desperately trying to keep the CIA's operations secret.

The White House now occupies a no-win position:

It can't make a case for the legality of the covert operations, because of their secrecy. And it can't condemn (with any credibility) the alleged illegal activities of the Nicaraguan government, because it has abandoned the one forum where such allegations can be pursued.

And even more significant, if the World Court decides that the American reservation deprives the court of jurisdiction in this case, Nicaragua can still obtain the court's advisory opinion at the request of, among other bodies, the UN General Assembly.

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