Democracy

Impunity Thy Name is USA

The United States has a long history of meddling in the affairs of other states and shirking responsibility. Ambassador Jose Zorrilla looks at the US' history of interventions and its retreat from international systems that may hold the US government accountable.

BY: JOSE A. ZORRILLA

As a young graduate I followed passionately the ups and downs of the Ellsberg affair. A certain Daniel Ellsberg published some secret papers of the Pentagon even though he had promised to keep mum. The papers in question disclosed that the Tonkin incident, the cause of the Vietnam war, were a Pentagon fake. In fact, it had been engineered by the Department of Defense’s (DoD) top brass to inveigle North Vietnam in a war the US was convinced it would win. I expected the worse for the whistleblower. Down here in Europe you don’t mess with official secrets. And then the surprise came. The Supreme Court ruled that the freedom of speech superseded any commitment to keep official papers under the shroud of secrecy. I was flabbergasted and at the same time dazzled. That was the highest point of a Jeffersonian democracy, I thought, the right of the citizens to know what happens in the halls of power, come hell or high water.

Well, the next chapter, I imagined, would be an exemplary punishment for the fake’s authors. The US had been discredited, the streets of the Union were up in arms and thousands of kids had given their lives in vain. To my astonishment, nothing happened. The very same Generals that had committed the crime stood in power losing the war and reaping rewards and medals. Not that the US is the paradise of impunity. Ask Richard Nixon, for instance. He toppled the oldest Latin American democracy, I mean Chile, causing the death of 15,000 persons thanks to the Franco of the Americas, General Augusto Pinochet. It went unnoticed. Yet, he ended up paying very dearly (I would say) for a minor misdemeanor, Watergate.

Then came Reagan and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. A couple of Argentinian military officers, after having been properly trained by the US, disappeared 167 persons in Honduras. Soon followed the Contra guerrillas, based upon the remnants of the Somoza’s personal guard against the legitimate government of Nicaragua, the Sandinistas. The isthmus turned upside down, a civil war erupted in El Salvador and a considerable number of people perished in the process. To make things worse, the International Court of Justice ruled that the US had broken the principle of “effective blockade” -as established in the Nuremberg trial- for having mined the harbors of Nicaragua. As a consequence, the US left the U.N International Court of Justice.

To make matters worse the Contra affair exposed a traffic of arms and narcotics as a consequence of the American intervention plus an additional folder of smuggling arms to Iran against the will of Congress. Again, nothing happened to the perpetrators. They all continued to have brilliant careers including ambassadorships of high profile. Oliver North of Contra fame, by the way, is today a respected anchor in mainstream broadcast. As to the violence itself, the very same Central American countries settled the issue with the so called Esquipulas agreement. And how about Nicaragua? Well, the Sandinistas remain in power to this day. Reagan’s posterity- very well thank you. A special article should be devoted to Afghanistan and Iraq but rest assured: I am not going to dwell on each and every one of the American foreign policy blunders that remain without proper retribution. I offered this brief tale just to introduce the subject and remind the reader of how difficult it has to be for the US to accept the very notion of Public International Justice. And yet, some form of international justice was a missing chapter in the liberal order of world affairs. Then, in the wake of the atrocious Balkan wars of Yugoslavia, the UN Security Council established an International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia and in 1994 another one to deal with the events in Rwanda, followed by another two ad hoc Tribunals, Sierra Leone and Cambodia. In the end, the General Assembly of the UN convened a conference in Rome and established in 1998 an International Criminal Court to deal with crimes against humanity and war crimes. It started operations in The Hague in 2002. The countries that refused to be part of the Court are, to this day, the US, Israel, Russia and Sudan. Others are still out of the Rome Statute, India or China, for instance. And then the unthinkable happened. Afghanistan and Palestine, both part of the Statute, became countries of interest for the Court. In an indirect manner that ruffled the feathers of the US for the decision affects the occupation forces in Afghanistan and the State of Israel. More unthinkable even, in the country that set up Nuremberg, US National Security adviser, John Bolton, made an excruciating attack on the ICC and closed the Palestinian office in Washington for having dared to call for an inquiry into the Israeli dealings in the occupied territories.

This frontal attack on the UN is undeserved as the Court itself is notorious for its shortcomings but it is no novelty and was preceded by the end of the US presence in UNESCO and in the Human Rights Committee. Liberals of the world can but regret this state of affairs. First, because the ICC is a last instance Court, which means that if the case ends up there it is due to a denial of justice in the domestic arena. And second, because it heralds the end of the US Great Generation´s philosophy of institutionalizing the world. For no institutions in the domestic space lead to revolution and chaos. Think of France, Russia or China. But in the International field it drives to war as the Prologue to the Chart of the UN reminds. If the biggest polity of the planet decides war and strife are acceptable outcomes in international relations, the future does not look very promising globally. But neither does it inside the home of the free. As Vietnam showed, wars of choice have the bad habit of backlashing at home with a vengeance.


Ambassador Jose A. Zorrilla is a career diplomat from Spain with postings in Milan (1989), Toronto (1993), Shanghai (2001), Moscow (2004), and Tbilisi (2009). He has published a book on the rise of China “China la primavera que llega” (China, the spring that arrives) and shot two documentary films (“Los Justos” (The Righteous) and “El desierto y las olas” (The Desert and the Waves)) and one full length film “El Arreglo” (The Deal) that won the Opera Prima Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 1983.  He has just published a novel “El espía en Saratov” (The Spy in Saratov) (De Librum Tremens) and “Historia fantástica de Europa” (An Imaginary History of Europe). He is a frequent contributor to El Mundo with articles focusing mostly on current affairs.

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