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World Court Digest

I. Substantive International Law - First Part

¤ Military and Paramilitary Activities
(Nicaragua/United States of America)
Merits. J. 27.6.1986
I.C.J. Reports 1986, p. 14

[p. 62] What the Court has to determine at this point is whether or not the relationship of the contras to the United States Government was so much one of dependence on the one side and control on the other that it would be right to equate the contras, for legal purposes, with an organ of the United States Government, or as acting on behalf of that Government. Here it is relevant to note that in May 1983 the assessment of the Intelligence Committee, in the Report referred to in paragraph 95 above, was that the contras "constitute[d] an independent force" and that the "only element of control that could be exercised by the United States" was "cessation of aid". Paradoxically this assessment serves to underline, a contrario, the potential for control inherent in the degree of the contras' dependence on aid. Yet despite the heavy subsidies and other support provided to them by the United States, there is no clear evidence of the United States having actually exercised such a degree of control in all fields as to justify treating the contras as acting on its behalf.

[p. 63] In the view of the Court it is established that the contra force has, at least at one period, been so dependent on the United States that it could not conduct its crucial or most significant military and paramilitary activities without the multi-faceted support of the United States. This finding is fundamental in the present case. Nevertheless, adequate direct proof that all or the great majority of contra activities during that period received this support has not been, and indeed probably could not be, advanced in every respect. It will suffice the Court to stress that a degree of control by the United States Government, as described above, is inherent in the position in which the contra force finds itself in relation to that Government.

[pp. 64-65] The Court has taken the view (paragraph 110 above) that United States participation, even if preponderant or decisive, in the financing, organizing, training, supplying and equipping of the contras, the selection of its military or paramilitary targets, and the planning of the whole of its operation, is still insufficient in itself, on the basis of the evidence in the possession of the Court, for the purpose of attributing to the United States the acts committed by the contras in the course of their military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua. All the forms of United States participation mentioned above, and even the general control by the respondent State over a force with a high degree of dependency on it, would not in themselves mean, without further evidence, that the United States directed or enforced the perpetration of the acts contrary to human rights and humanitarian law alleged by the applicant State. Such acts could well be committed by members of the contras without the control of the United States. For this conduct to give rise to legal responsibility of the United States, it would in principle have to be proved that that State had effective control of the military or paramilitary operations in the course of which the alleged violations were committed.
The Court does not consider that the assistance given by the United States to the contras warrants the conclusion that these forces are subject to the United States to such an extent that any acts they have committed are imputable to that State. It takes the view that the contras remain responsible for their acts, and that the United States is not responsible for the acts of the contras, but for its own conduct vis-à-vis Nicaragua, including conduct related to the acts of the contras. What the Court has to investigate is not the complaints relating to alleged violations of humanitarian law by the contras, regarded by Nicaragua as imputable to the United States, but rather unlawful acts for which the United States may be responsible directly in connection with the activities of the contras. The lawfulness or otherwise of such acts of the United States is a question different from the violations of humanitarian law of which the contras may or may not have been guilty. It is for this reason that the Court does not have to determine whether the violations of humanitarian law attributed to the contras were in fact committed by them. At the same time, the question whether the United States Government was, or must have been, aware at the relevant time that allegations of breaches of humanitarian law were being made against the contras is relevant to an assessment of the lawfulness of the action of the United States. In this respect the material facts are primarily those connected with the issue in 1983 of a manual of psychological operations.

[pp. 83-84] Secondly, even supposing it well established that military aid is reaching the armed opposition in El Salvador from the territory of Nicaragua, it still remains to be proved that this aid is imputable to the authorities of the latter country. Indeed, the applicant State has in no way sought to conceal the possibility of weapons en route to the armed opposition in El Salvador crossing its territory but it denies that this is the result of any deliberate official policy on its part. As the Court observed in 1949:

"it cannot be concluded from the mere fact of the control exercised by a State over its territory and waters that that State necessarily knew, or ought to have known, of any unlawful act perpetrated therein, nor yet that it necessarily knew, or should have known, the authors. This fact, by itself and apart from other circumstances, neither involves prima facie responsibility nor shifts the burden of proof." (Corfu Channel, I.C.J. Reports 1949, p. 18.)

[p 85] ... if the flow of arms is in fact reaching El Salvador without either Honduras or El Salvador or the United States succeeding in preventing it, it would clearly be unreasonable to demand of the Government of Nicaragua a higher degree of diligence than is achieved by even the combined efforts of the other three States. In particular, when Nicaragua is blamed for allowing consignments of arms to cross its territory, this is tantamount, where El Salvador is concerned, to an admission of its inability to stem the flow. This is revealing as to the predicament of any government, including that of Nicaragua, faced with this arms traffic: its determination to put a stop to it would be likely to fail. More especially, to the extent that some of this aid is said to be successfully routed through Honduras, this accusation against Nicaragua would also signify that Honduras, which is not suspected of seeking to assist the armed opposition in El Salvador, is providing involuntary proof that it is by no means certain that Nicaragua can combat this clandestine traffic any better than Honduras. As the means at the disposal of the governments in the region are roughly comparable, the geographical obstacles, and the intrinsic character of any clandestine arms traffic, simply show that this traffic may be carried on successfully without any complicity from governmental authorities, and even when they seek to put a stop to it. Finally, if it is true that the exceptionally extensive resources deployed by the United States have been powerless to prevent this traffic from keeping the Salvadorian armed opposition supplied, this suggests even more clearly how powerless Nicaragua must be with the much smaller resources at its disposal for subduing this traffic if it takes place on its territory and the authorities endeavour to put a stop to it.
Confining itself to the regional States concerned, the Court accordingly considers that it is scarcely possible for Nicaragua's responsibility for an arms traffic taking place on its territory to be automatically assumed while the opposite assumption is adopted with regard to its neighbours in respect of similar traffic. Having regard to the circumstances characterizing this part of Central America, the Court considers it more realistic, and consistent with the probabilities, to recognize that an activity of that nature, if on a limited scale, may very well be pursued unbeknown to the territorial government.

[pp. 188-189 S.O. Ago] On the other hand, the negative answer returned by the Court to the Applicant's suggestion that the misdeeds committed by some members of the contra forces should be considered as acts imputable to the United States of America is likewise in conformity with the provisions of the International Law Commission's draft 1. It would indeed be inconsistent with the principles governing the question to regard members of the contra forces as persons or groups acting in the name and on behalf of the United States of America. Only in cases where certain members of those forces happened to have been specifically charged by United States authorities to commit a particular act, or carry out a particular task of some kind on behalf of the United States, would it be possible so to regard them. Only in such instances does international law recognize, as a rare exception to the rule, that the conduct of persons or groups which are neither agents nor organs of a State, nor members of its apparatus even in the broadest acceptation of that term, may be held to be acts of that State.

1 I refer to Articles 11 (Conduct of persons not acting on behalf of the State) and 8 (Attribution to the State of the conduct of persons acting in fact on behalf of the State), read together.