THE recent riots against the United States Embassy in Honduras illustrate the risks of one aspect of the more assertive foreign policies in the Reagan administration: the readiness to challenge the sovereignty of other nations in order to reduce threats to US lives and interests. The tactic has been employed primarily in cases involving terrorism and drugs. In three instances in recent years, the US has reached beyond its borders to seize the captors of the Achille Lauro; Fawad Younis, hijacker of a Jordanian airliner; and, most recently, Juan Matta in Honduras. In each case Washington believed that the individuals, suspected of crimes against US citizens, would not be tried by other nations. In a fourth, the case of Gen. Manuel Noriega, a grand jury, with the obvious support of the administration, has indicted the leader of Panama's armed forces. Whether the capture has been physically outside the borders of a nation or has not yet taken place, the action of the US is seen by many in these nations as a serious affront to sovereignty.
The pressures and temptations for the US to ignore sovereignties in the pursuit of its interests have long been present. Other nations have provided examples. Israel reached into Argentina to capture Adolf Eichmann and, more recently, to Rome to seize Mordechai Vanunu, charged with revealing Israeli nuclear secrets. The world has observed the French sending agents to dynamite the Greenpeace ship in New Zealand and South Africa crossing neighboring borders at will to kill suspected members of the African National Congress.
In previous administrations, military actions were mounted to rescue US citizens, without regard to boundaries. No known efforts, however, were made to go outside the normal rules of extradition to seize individuals suspected of crimes against Americans. Such a policy clearly carries risks. Sovereignty is a highly sensitive issue in every country. The US, for instance, was required to yield to Italian jurisdiction with the Achille Lauro hijackers and to heed negative reaction in Egypt, but the risks were manageable.
The situation in Central America is clearly different. Any US action permits nationalist elements to exploit the history of past US interventions and discriminations. In the case of Honduras, the invasion of sovereignty encountered an already growing undercurrent of resentment against pressures from Washington regarding the contras and Nicaragua. In Panama, General Noriega has appealed to nationalist sentiments and to emotions stirred by ``gringo'' intervention. The explosive results obviously pose risks to wider US security interests; drug dealers cannot be pursued in isolation from these broader considerations.
Intervention in each instance appears justified to the US: American citizens were captured or killed, and foreign jurisdictions appeared to take no action. Other nations have many reasons for ignoring, if not concealing, the criminals. In the Middle East, the Palestinian terrorist is protected by widespread sympathy for his cause. In Central America, governments and courts are intimidated by the power of corrupt regimes or drug cartels.
Yet the US, in undertaking these unilateral invasions of other national jurisdictions, is on shaky ground. The US courts have yet to rule in any case on the legal basis for these seizures. Beyond this, in an era in which international order is widely threatened, the US contributes to its breakdown by establishing precedents for the invasion of sovereignty. Others may use such precedents to defend actions that would be, to Americans, less justified. Americans would be highly incensed if authorities of another country snatched an individual, without due process, from US jurisdiction.
Unprecedented threats are posed to the safety and welfare of US citizens by the existence of terrorism and the power of the drug trade. It can be argued that both present new situations requiring a rethinking of principles of sovereignty, especially if other countries do not see the threat or take action in ways the US considers necessary.
But, particularly in the third world and Latin America, nations still deeply affected by outside interventions of the past are not yet prepared to relax their sensitivities. Given this fact, it should come as no surprise to Washington that efforts to seize individuals in other countries, however justified in US eyes, can seriously affect other significant US interests.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.