Contra’ Justice

One of the critical questions in evaluating the contras seeking to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua is whether they engage in abuses of human rights. The organization with which I am associated, Americas Watch, has published three reports describing assassinations of civilians, indiscriminate attacks in which civilians have been killed, executions of prisoners, attacks on medical personnel, rapes, kidnappings, and other abuses by the contras. In addition, such abuses have been described in reports published by several other independent groups, among them Amnesty International, the Washington Office on Latin America, and the International Human Rights Law Group. In its recent report, Amnesty International estimated that “several hundred” Nicaraguan captives have been “tortured and put to death” by FDN forces since 1981.

In response to such charges, President Reagan, on June 11, 1985, sent a letter to Congressman Robert Michel, Republican leader in the House of Representatives, asserting:

I take very seriously your concern about human rights. The US condemns, in the strongest possible terms, atrocities by either side. We are committed to helping the democratic resistance in applying strict rules regarding proper treatment of prisoners and the civilian population. And we urge their leaders to investigate allegations of past human rights abuses and take appropriate actions to prevent future abuses.

That letter was circulated to the entire House of Representatives. It played an important part in persuading the House to reverse a vote it had taken three months earlier and to appropriate $27 million in “humanitarian” aid to the contras.

Acting in accordance with the President’s pledge, the administration took the lead in persuading the contras to form a new political front, the Nicaraguan Opposition Union (UNO), which brought together the principal contra combatant group, the Nicaraguan Democratic Front (FDN) and some smaller groups. UNO promptly announced that it would establish its own human rights group to investigate allegations of abuses by FDN forces and other forces associated with it.

On November 6, 1985, the Reagan administration sent a progress report to Congress. It said:

Nineteen UNO/FDN combatants are reported currently held in detention facilities at resistance camps, serving sentences imposed in accordance with the “Code of Conduct.” Resistance members have also been expelled from the movement for criminal actions which may have involved human rights abuses. The punitive measures taken against human rights offenders and the efforts underway to improve the resistance record clearly indicate that the resistance leadership does not condone human rights violations and has taken punitive action to prevent their occurrence.

On December 5, 1985, Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, testified at a hearing of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs. Discussing charges of abuses by the contras, Abrams told the subcommittee, “I would have to tell you that my own view is that an awful lot of human rights advocates have been very careless about the information they have been using.” The following exchange then took place with the subcommittee chairman, Representative Michael Barnes:

Mr …

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