CONVICTION of Oliver North on three of 12 charges fits into a pattern: People in many of the more-developed areas of the world are showing less tolerance for lawbreaking or unethical conduct by government officials. ``There is a pendulum swinging back ... expressing the will of the people that corruption isn't accepted,'' says lawyer and ethics expert Michael Josephson.
He gives the following government examples: In Japan Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita has just been forced to resign because of a scandal; in the Soviet Union the son-in-law of the once all-powerful Leonid Brezhnev has been prosecuted on corruption charges; and in Mexico and Greece popular dismay is rising because of corruption or scandal within the ruling parties.
Even in China an end to corruption of government officials is one theme of the current unprecedented student protests, which revolve around a demand for more democracy.
In the United States Colonel North, only a relatively low-level government official, stood accused of wrongdoing in the Iran-contra scandal. His trial was completed last Thursday.
Still to come are the Iran-contra trials of former National Security Council administrator John Poindexter and others. They similarly do not reach the highest levels of government.
But in the US, public concern over ethics goes far beyond these cases, says Mr. Josephson, who is president of the Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics. For more than 20 years he was a law professor.
``In a whole series of events, different people are being held accountable'' by courts or public opinion ``for conduct that in previous time would have been beyond reach,'' Josephson says, mentioning the examples of Reagan White House aides Michael Deaver and Lyn Nofziger, and former Sen. John Tower. Now Washington's attention is on House Speaker Jim Wright as well as Colonel North.
In general, former President Reagan denied knowledge of the Iran-contra activities. The Tower Commission pictured the President as unaware of what was being done by North and others to resupply the contras.
After the jury verdict, which North is appealing, President Bush adamantly denied the implications of a memorandum that had surfaced during the trial. The memo indicated that during the Reagan presidency a quid pro quo may have existed of more US aid for Honduras in return for that nation's continued help to the contras, and that Mr. Bush, who was then vice-president, might have known of such an agreement.
``There was no quid pro quo,'' President Bush says flatly. ``There has been much needless, mindless speculation about my word of honor and I've answered it now, definitively.''
Although North was a relatively low-level administration official, Josephson says, his conviction ``sends a significant and strong message'' to executive branch officials ``that even if they think they are operating under orders of the President, they can still be guilty of a crime.''
In his instructions to the jury, US District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell said that neither a president nor anyone else could authorize North to break laws.
After the trial published interviews with several jurors indicated that they believed North was in fact following orders from top officials in the Reagan administration. Nevertheless, the jury convicted him on three counts: shredding documents, ``aiding and abetting'' the obstruction of a congressional investigation, and illegally accepting a gratuity - a security fence around his property.
In a larger sense, social scientist Suzanne Garment says, violations of US laws relating to ethics are the fault of society's efforts to legislate ethics.
The more laws that are written labeling specific unethical actions as illegal, she says, ``the more you're going to encourage people to think of'' ways to adhere to the letter of the laws, rather than to the underlying principles of ethics.