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. Barnes: What do we know about the human rights record of the opposition? Have there in fact been murders, rapes, kidnappings by the group that we are providing assistance to?

Mr. Abrams: According to the UNO, there have been abuses. In the last six months, between May and September of this year, we know that UNO held twenty-one trials. Of those twenty-one mentioned, nineteen were found guilty; two were found innocent; the breakdown of those crimes was: two for abuse of civilians; two for murder; five for disobedience of orders; three for robbery; four for sexual abuses; one for perjury; one for selling equipment; one for cultivating marijuana; one for selling secrets.

This analysis of the crimes of the contra prisoners referred to in the President’s November 6 report to Congress suggested that only eight of the nineteen—those convicted of murder, sexual abuses, and “abuse of civilians”—had actually been punished for human rights abuses.

In February 1986, the State Department published its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1985. Again, the same cases were discussed. The report on Nicaragua asserts:

According to UNO records, 21 individuals were so prosecuted between May and November, of whom 19 were found guilty and sentenced, and two were acquitted. The offenses involved theft, espionage, drug use, rape, and murder.

In March 1986, a member of the executive committee of Americas Watch visited the offices of UNO’s human rights organization in San José, Costa Rica. She discussed cases of abuses by the contras on which Americas Watch had collected information. The director of the office reported that UNO had not yet made headway in investigating those cases, but he did provide her with the list that is published below of cases in which punishment had been imposed on members of the contras for abuses. It appears to be a list of the cases referred to by President Reagan in his November 6 report to Congress and thereafter by Elliott Abrams and by the State Department Country Reports, minus the five cases of “disobedience of orders” mentioned by Abrams. These are the only cases of punishment of members of the contras for abuses that UNO has provided to Americas Watch, either at the March meeting in Costa Rica, or at any other time. Americas Watch knows of no other cases in which contra organizations have punished their own personnel for human rights abuses. The list follows.


Comision Derechos Humanos (UNO-CDH)




(Translated from the Spanish)

As this list shows, eight of these cases involve abuses by contras against other contras; one involves growing marijuana; one involves a property crime against a Honduran; three involve property crimes against Nicaraguans; and one involves multiple rape against Nicaraguans.

To sum up, President Reagan’s call in June 1985 for “appropriate actions to prevent future abuses” was followed by a November 1985 report to Congress that nineteen contras had been punished. This report was followed by December 1985 testimony to Congress stating that only eight of these punishments were for violent crimes. In Feburary 1986 the State Department issued a less specific breakdown of cases in its Country Reports. Finally, in March 1986, Americas Watch received information from UNO itself making it clear that only one member of the contras was actually punished for violent crimes against Nicaraguan civilians.

April 30, 1986

This Issue

May 29, 1986