The United States is retreating from its strong backing of the World Court -- which it helped to found 40 years ago. President Reagan has formally ended US acceptance of the court's compulsory jurisdiction.
The US will continue to accept the court's authority in mutually submitted disputes that are ``appropriate'' for the court to handle, the state department said yesterday. This presumably means the US will exclude itself from cases deemed to be used by another party for political ends.
Many international lawyers decry the move as a US slap at the court and the rule of law as a fundamental principle in international relations. They say it will affect the nation's moral and legal standing in the world.
``This is an exaggerated response to the issues arising out the Nicaraguan case,'' says Herbert Hansell, a former State Department legal adviser. ``Our posture has been to try to promote an international legal order that recognizes the possibility of peaceful settlement of disputes. This is a step backward from that posture.''
The administration action comes as the World Court is hearing a case against the US brought by Nicaragua. The Sandinista government charges that the US illegally mined Nicaraguan harbors and is unlawfully directing the counterrevolutionary insurgency.
The US initially argued that the court lacked jurisdiction in the case. In April 1984 it announced that it would not accept the court's authority for two years in disputes involving Central America. Under the terms of that action, the US had to inform the court six months before the expiration of the two-year period as to its intentions. Hence yesterday's announcement.
The action is viewed as especially unfortunate, coming when the US appears to be under the gun at the court in a case that it has not chosen to argue.
``The court is not a perfect body and is politically swayed, but so is the Supreme Court,'' says Alfred Rubin, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. ``The problem is what kind of international structures and ideals the United States should be behind.''
Dr. Rubin argues that, if the court has indeed ceased to play a role in solving some of the world's problems and become a political tool, the US would better not submit anything to it and employ such ad hoc tribunals as the International Court of Arbitration.
A partial withdrawal, he says, casts the US in a hypocritical stance, declaring that it will use the court only when this serves the interests of American foreign policy. That, he suggests, is the same standard that the Soviet Union accepts. ``We are accepting their model of the world,'' he comments.
The administration argues that West Germany, France, Spain, China, the Soviet Union, and some other countries have not accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the court. But, say legal experts, these states rejected such jurisdiction from the outset, not possessing the high hopes for the court which the US has had.
The US in 1946 accepted the court's ``compulsory jurisdiction'' except in cases involving domestic jurisdiction. Administration officials say the US has operated since that time on the assumption that the court had a sense of its own role and limitations and would not accept cases of a political nature which it could not resolve.
``The assumption that we would not be subject to abuse has not been proven out,'' says a State Department official.
Critics counter that most disputes are political. ``Almost any issue arising between two states . . . have political overtones,'' Mr. Hansell says.
Established in 1945, the International Court of Justice, as the World Court is formally known, has heard fewer than 50 cases, mostly commercial and boundary disputes. The US was one of 50 countries to have accepted the court's compulsory jurisdiction, subject to various provisions.
Although the court's usefulness is limited, it has proved to be a useful forum and has enjoyed the support of Republican and Democratic administrations. In 1980 the US submitted the Iranian hostage case to the court, whose decision against the Khomeini regime played a role in the eventual release of the American hostages. Earlier this year the court adjudicated a sea-boundary dispute between Canada and the US.