Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 60 | Junio 1986



The Politics of Human Rights Reporting on Nicaragua

Envío team

The justifications for US intervention in Latin America have not changed in over a century. From the Mexican War of 1846-48 to the invasion of Grenada, US officials and newspapers have, with extraordinary consistency, used three points to defend American government actions: (1) assertions that the government the US is attacking is illegitimate (it is invariably depicted as unelected, dictatorial, and brutal); (2) allegations of arms shipments from powers hostile to the United States; and (3) claims that American lives and/or property are in imminent danger.

For purposes of public opinion, the first of these, the "human rights" consideration, is often the most important, and the one that stays in people’s memory. Thus, US schoolchildren, reading about the Mexican War of the 1840's, learn of "the cruel dictator Santa Ana." They also learn that US President Woodrow Wilson refused to recognize General Huerta's government during the Mexican Revolution because Huerta had "blood on his hands" from his murder of his predecessor Francisco Madero. Although the real motivations for the invasions are not discussed, the public justification is at least true.* Santa Ana was a dictator, and Huerta did have blood on his hands. Later interventions became harder to justify on "human rights" grounds, but even in the 1954 Guatemalan coup, the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic or the overthrow of the Chilean government in 1973, the US government and press have continued to carry the same time-worn assertions that the government or forces being attacked were illegitimate and dictatorial.
*The Mexican War was fought on behalf of southern slave owners who needed room to expand. Wilson's invasion of Veracruz and ultimate ouster of Huerta was motivated by concern that Huerta represented British Petroleum interests and had overthrown Standard Oil's chosen instrument Madero.

The use of the "human rights campaign" to secure strategic interests reached its zenith during the Carter administration. It served as the propaganda centerpiece for that administration, even after the effort was tarnished by evidence from Iran of ongoing and direct CIA complicity with the torture squads of the Shah's secret police, and after a cynical administration report in the spring of 1978 claiming that Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza was cleaning up his human rights performance.

The contra war against Nicaragua has confronted official Washington with a new problem: how to justify a long-running war with a proxy army of dubious virtue against a popularly elected sovereign government that the US has been unable to isolate in world opinion, the World Court and elsewhere. Since public opinion is an important element of low-intensity wars of this type, and since the war lacks the lightning-raid quality of the Grenada invasion that would make any debate on the issue moot after a few days or weeks, a major part of the US effort has been devoted to an ongoing public consecration of the war's goals.

"Perception management" on Nicaraguan human rights

In this long battle, the Reagan administration has used familiar weapons from previous engagements. Aided by a collaborative spirit in the US corporate press and US-dominated transnational press, the Reagan administration has worked to focus debate on Nicaragua on administration-sponsored allegations of Sandinista human rights violations and of arms shipments from Cuba and the Soviet Union. An important component of the operation has been the production of "human rights" reports by the Reagan administration and US-funded agencies. Special offices with large staffs have been opened in the White House and the State Department to crank out and promote such reports. Lurid charges have been leveled at Nicaragua asserting that the government has murdered thousands of people; State Department human rights publications ever since 1981 speak of "credible reports of secret prisons throughout Nicaragua, where prisoners are tortured"; allegations are made of routine religious persecution of Christians and Jews; and President Reagan himself has claimed that "thousands of [Miskito Indians] have been slaughtered or herded into detention camps where they have been starved or abused."

The Reagan administration, however, has had to contend with a new obstacle US Presidents have not encountered before: the influence of independent international human rights organizations that have conducted their own investigations (something not usually possible in wartime). These highly respected organizations, among them the British-based Amnesty International and the US-based Americas Watch, have sharply contradicted the Reagan administration line on virtually every point of its human rights case.

Human rights organizations respond

Regarding US State Department allegations of the murder by the Nicaraguan government of thousands of political opponents, a charge made by Jose Alvaro Baldizón, a Nicaraguan émigré whom the State Department has presented to the press on numerous occasions, Americas Watch investigated his charges and declared that his murder allegations were "not credible" and that "many of Baldizón's other allegations are clearly false." The organization added that "it does a disservice to the human rights cause to disseminate war propaganda and pass it off as human rights information." [A detailed discussion of Baldizón's charges is contained in the Americas Watch report "Human Rights in Nicaragua, 1985-1986," published March 4, 1986.]

Concerning US assertions, first made in 1981, of secret prisons where torture is practiced, Americas Watch noted in its 1982 report that "in response to our request for specific information concerning torture in Nicaragua, the State Department had advised us prior to our departure [for Nicaragua] that such information would be available at the Embassy in Managua. The Embassy advised us not only that no such information was available but that, in the opinion of its senior staff, torture was not practiced by the Nicaraguan government and that any cases of torture were almost certainly isolated events rather than government policy." [Americas Watch, "On Human Rights in Nicaragua," published May 1982.] Americas Watch lawyer Stephen Kass remarked at a meeting on Nicaragua sponsored by the New York City Bar Association in 1985 that there is no evidence of officially sanctioned torture, and that the occasional allegations of brutality are extremely minor compared to what happens in the police stations of US cities any night of the week.

As to suppression of religious freedom, Americas Watch, while expressing concern in a recent report at news of brief arrests or questioning of religious leaders charged with encouraging draft evasion or involvement in contra military operations, noted in its July 1985 report that "even the [US] State Department's Country Reports do not claim that Catholics are persecuted for their faith." It added that then-US Ambassador to Nicaragua Anthony Quainton had cabled the State Department in July 1983 that he knew of no evidence for accusing the Sandinistas of a policy of anti-Semitism; and that the National Council of Churches, the umbrella organization for US Protestants, had found charges of religious persecution in Nicaragua "entirely without substance."

Americas Watch notes that "the growth of the Protestant community since 1979 (from 80,000 to 380,000) would tend to support this finding." It notes that "in Nicaragua as elsewhere in Catholic Latin America, there does exist a measure of what could be called cultural anti-Semitism, which surfaces in disturbing places. Archbishop [now Cardinal] Obando's homily of October l7, 1984, as printed in La Prensa, contains unmistakable references to Jews as slayers of Christ, for example." Obando had said, "...the leaders of Israel...mistreated [the prophets], beat them and killed them. Finally as supreme proof of his love, God sent his Divine Son; but they... also killed him, crucifying him." "The Jews killed the prophets and finally the Son of God.... Such idolatry calls for Heaven's vengeance." [Americas Watch, "Human Rights in Nicaragua: Reagan, Rhetoric and Reality," July 1985.] Edgar Bronfman, head of the World Jewish Congress, was quoted in the November 1984 edition of the US Jewish newspaper Genesis II as calling the charges of Sandinista anti-Semitism "a red herring and almost certainly false."

Regarding the Miskito Indians, a number of organizations such as Americas Watch and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have debunked the Reagan administration charges. The Inter-American Commission, after a thorough investigation in May 1984, found one incident in which a group of Miskitos was killed by Sandinista forces (the 1981 Leimus case; Americas Watch found another, in 1982, involving seven deaths, and noted that both cases occurred in war zones and there was no evidence that the central government directed or condoned them). Americas Watch further noted that the 1982 evacuations from the Río Coco to which Reagan was referring "were not aimed at the Miskito culture or people as a whole; in fact some 10% of the Miskito population was affected, and the policy was clearly prompted by military considerations." (They have since returned.) It added that both the Inter-American Commission and the Nicaraguan Bishops Conference have recognized the necessity of the 1982 evacuation from the Río Coco. Americas Watch went on to report that "since 1982 we are aware of one Miskito disappearance." Human rights organizations have also praised the government for its autonomy project for the Atlantic Coast and its dialogue with Miskito rebel leaders, a dialogue the US government is trying to sabotage.

Although human rights groups have pointed out that their disputing of Reagan administration allegations in no way diminishes their criticism of rights abuses where they have occurred, and have gone on to document such abuses, the reports have drawn vitriolic responses from the Reagan administration. High-level Reagan administration officials have charged that Americas Watch is "more a political than a human rights organization," and former New York State Assistant Attorney General Reed Brody, who documented cases of atrocities by the US-run contras, has been accused of being an agent or dupe of the Sandinistas. (In neither case has the administration made a serious effort to respond to their accusations.)

The politicization of the issue has had a profound effect on human rights reporting from Nicaragua. In the first three years of the Sandinista revolution, before the contra war really got underway, human rights reports focused on areas for suggested improvements in Nicaraguan government performance. Although the reports were used for partisan political purposes (for example, La Prensa editor Roberto Cardenal was quoting approvingly from an Americas Watch report in meetings with foreign delegations in May 1982) and were criticized on the grounds that they suffered the biases of the writers of the reports, groups rarely felt the need to present their findings in such a way as to maintain "credibility" in the US press.

Two factors have changed that situation. The unrelieved bestiality of contra activities and the direct US involvement in those activities has caused some human rights groups to break with tradition and devote at least some space to contra atrocities. Many human rights groups have a general policy of concentrating on government behavior, and only discuss the actions of rebel groups when those groups control territory and function as de facto governments. The contras don’t fit this category. At the same time, the scope, range, ferocity and sheer duration of the Reagan administration attack on Nicaragua and recently on the rights groups themselves has narrowed the space in which groups can operate. Groups are now forced to devote considerable time to responding to the Reagan administration agenda, and worse, to "balancing" their reports in order to maintain access to the US press. Human rights groups are in the credibility business just like newspaper reporters and members of Congress, and rely very heavily on their treatment in the American media for continued influence.

The US environment was dramatically revealed last year when The New York Times restricted its coverage of an Americas Watch report to three sentences (one sentence very briefly summed up the organization's report, and the other two quoted a Reagan administration denial and an attack on Americas Watch). Not long afterward, contra leaders Adolfo Calero, Alfonso Robelo and Arturo Cruz agreed to meet with Americas Watch only on condition that New York Times reporter Shirley Christian could sit in on the meeting, then devoted virtually the entirety of the meeting to a denunciation of Americas Watch, while Ms. Christian took notes. Ms. Christian has been widely criticized in the US for her exceptionally sympathetic treatment of the contras in her articles, particularly on human rights questions.

Human rights groups, including Americas Watch, have responded by accusing the Reagan administration of "smear" tactics against human rights organizations and "debasement" of the human rights cause. Americas Watch published a courageous report, particularly given the climate in which it is working, in June 1985 ("Human Rights in Nicaragua: Reagan, Rhetoric and Reality"). In its March 1986 report, Americas Watch denounces the Reagan Administration for smearing those reporting contra abuses rather than seriously investigating the abuses and acknowledging those that have taken place. By its behavior, the report concluded, "the administration has enhanced the likelihood that further abuses will take place and enhanced its own responsibility for them." It added, "such a concerted campaign to use human rights in justifying military action is without precedent in US-Latin American relations, and its effect is an unprecedented debasement of the human rights cause." Another US rights organization, the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, used similar language in its 1985 report on Nicaragua. But a serious and legitimate concern has grown, in the rights organizations and elsewhere, that the administration's politicization of the issue and the need to write reports for a US audience risks distorting human rights coverage to the point where it bears little resemblance to Nicaraguan reality.

Caught in the Reagan agenda

Human rights organizations perform a valuable, and valued, service in providing suggestions to the Nicaraguan government on improving its shortcomings. Indeed, the US-based Lawyers Committee on International Human Rights noted that Nicaragua has welcomed and acted on many of its suggestions. Suggestions go both ways, and Nicaragua has provided the world a number of its own: the Nicaraguan police, who often impress observers with their gentleness, consideration and impeccable honesty, is only one example; Nicaragua's open prison system is another.

However, virtually any observer who lives in Nicaragua, travels with soldiers on patrol, watches the police perform or witnesses the activity, in wartime, of opposition press, religious figures and labor unions (funded by the government of the enemy power) can testify that Nicaragua has afforded a degree of civil liberties unmatched by any other democratic country in wartime and most countries in peacetime. An observer cannot help but note that the extreme attention to human rights lapses that have occurred are all out of proportion to their scope and frequency, and almost entirely a response to the Reagan Administration's propaganda campaign.

The editor of La Prensa, in wartime, can publish an article in The Washington Post calling on a foreign power to finance the overthrow of his country's government, and continue to publish his newspaper, albeit with emergency censorship. A labor union, the CUS, set up and funded by the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), can continue to organize workers in the country, in wartime. The AIFLD was exposed in 1967 as having been set up by the CIA, and is still financed and run by the US government.

In the face of this, human rights organizations in search of "balance" to offset their reports of contra atrocities devote enormous amounts of paper and ink to such questions as whether a brief summons to police headquarters produces a "chilling effect" on legitimate political activity [Americas Watch in its March 1986 report suggests that it may], or whether the absence of light in a jail cell (light bulbs are in extremely short supply in Nicaragua, and power outages are frequent) constitutes harsh interrogation techniques [Amnesty International in its March 1986 report suggests that the absence of light could be deliberate, in order to confuse prisoners as to how much time had elapsed].

Beyond this, the rights organizations hold Nicaragua up to a standard in wartime that no other country has ever reached, or, in some reports, act largely as if the war did not exist and hold Nicaragua to peacetime standards. The blindness to the war is maintained despite the fact that Nicaragua has lost a greater percentage of its population to the contra war than the United States lost in all of World War II. The March 1986 reports of both Amnesty International and Americas Watch are particularly flawed in this regard.

Nicaragua's press censorship, like any censorship, may be "heavy-handed" from time to time, as Americas Watch says, but the censorship is extraordinarily liberal for a country involved in a major war, particularly one being waged against it by a foreign power on its own territory. The US and Britain did not censor the pro-German newspapers during World War II; they closed them down and imprisoned the editors. They censored the rest of the press.

Detention without trial, while open to abuse in any country in which it is applied, has been equally mild. The British detained fascists like Oswald Mosley at the start of the Second World War, then, during the Battle of Britain when an invasion was a real possibility, arrested all Italian, German and Austrian passport holders, even Italian restaurant chefs who had lived in Britain for 30 years and heroic anti-fascist fighters who had fled to Britain from Germany or Austria. The US did approximately the same with the Japanese. No one would defend this today, of course,* and Nicaragua has made no effort to follow the British or American wartime example. In cases where populations have been removed from conflictive border areas the evacuees, far from being interned, are free to live anywhere they wish, except that they cannot return to the border area. (They are offered free housing, such as the government is able to provide, in settlements.) Further, evacuations have not been based, as they were in Britain and the US, on whole national or racial groups regarded as fifth columnists. As Americas Watch has pointed out in the past, the evacuation of the communities from the Río Coco in 1982 involved all residents of the area, not only Miskitos (it happened that most of the population was Miskito, but Spanish-speaking mestizos and others were also removed).
*In a similar situation, however, they might try it again. The French carried out massive detentions during the Algerian War, both in Algeria and in metropolitan France, torturing many. The US kept detention camps ready for possible incarceration of "subversives" up through the late 1960's, and only closed them when public attention to the issue made them too much of an embarrassment. The US government had claimed that they were being kept ready in case a major war broke out.

On the question of detention of "fifth columnists," it should be noted that opposition figures with the closest ties to Washington and only the thinnest of pretensions separating them from the military wing of the contras, are able to obtain passports to travel abroad, including to the United States, where they ask the US authorities to invade. Juan Manuel Gutiérrez, a leading rightwing figure in the Independent Liberal Party in Nicaragua and a member of the National Assembly, shocked other members of a parliamentary delegation to Washington last November when he reportedly told a Congressional aide, "We are in your hands. We can do nothing. What are you waiting for to invade?" The government has made no effort to expel Mr. Gutiérrez from the National Assembly, where he took an oath of office to defend the country, let alone try him for treason. In fact, Mr. Gutiérrez is running for president of the Independent Liberal Party. One can only imagine the response if a serving member of the US Congress went to Havana or Moscow and acted similarly. Mr. Gutiérrez also has no trouble continuing his foreign travel. Needless to say, it was extremely difficult for any American to get a passport in World War II, particularly a fascist collaborator who was planning to fly to Berlin to discuss how the war was going. Passports were also denied to hundreds of thousands of Americans in the 1950s, including US Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and US Congress member Leo Isaacson, who were deemed by the authorities to be too far to the left. Former CIA agent Philip Agee is still waiting for the return of his passport, which was revoked by the Carter administration because the CIA was embarrassed by his revelations.

Disappearances. Here the human rights organizations have done a good job in setting the record straight. Americas Watch accused the US State Department of "outright deception" when in its 1984 Country Report on Nicaragua it quoted the right-opposition Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH) as saying that there had been 60 disappearances in Nicaragua in that year. In fact, Americas Watch reported, there had been eight unresolved cases of missing persons for 1984; in two of those cases, the CPDH had evidence of an arrest by security forces. "Accordingly," Americas Watch stated in its July 1985 "Reagan, Rhetoric and Reality" report, "those two cases are properly referred to as disappearances; no other cases warrant this label." The organization went on to point out that the CPDH uses the word "disappearances" "in a looser fashion than applied elsewhere in Latin America," where it usually means extra-judicial murder. "What CPDH has called disappearances have occurred, for the most part, in remote rural areas and consist of detentions carried out without informing family members; or transfers of detainees to new places of detention without informing family members; most of these detainees have been located in custody at a later date, and therefore are said to have 'reappeared.'"

Americas Watch called on the government to set up a better accounting system in rural areas, noting that one was set up for Managua with considerable success. It should only be noted that there is at the present time an extremely dangerous spy war going on in the north of Nicaragua, with infiltration by Sandinistas and contras of each others' military and security forces. Disappearances and detentions about which the military does not wish to divulge information may be nothing more than this.

Deaths out of combat. The highest credible figure provided by human rights groups for killings out of combat plus disappearances for which Sandinista security forces are responsible is approximately 300 since the start of the war. Most of these are cases from several years ago when troops were first encountering contra violence. Six persons were reported killed out of combat in war-related incidents in 1985, according to Americas Watch. This is an extraordinarily low figure for such a brutal war, and in general, Sandinista soldiers show far greater sensitivity than can be found in most armies. Where deaths have occurred the Nicaraguan government has generally taken extremely severe measures against the perpetrators. For example, in highly publicized trials, the government sentenced 13 soldiers, including one senior officer, to very long prison terms for killings out of combat in the area around Pancasán despite the fact that several of those convicted were longtime Sandinistas with otherwise good records.

Americas Watch cites 17 "extra-judicial executions" in 1985 reported to it or to the CPDH. It notes, however, that most of the cases involved deaths unrelated to political activities, such as the case of a drunken soldier who fired into a dance hall, killing several persons, and other cases involving private enmities. The soldier in the dance hall incident received a 25-year prison sentence. The government has also taken several steps that are unusual in armies, such as making it illegal to sell liquor to anyone in uniform and training soldiers to avoid or extricate themselves from altercations. In five of the cases, Americas Watch reports, the CPDH had listed Sandinista soldiers who were killed in fights with the contras; the CPDH had claimed that these were killed by the government because relatives said the soldiers were sent to war unprepared or that the government had not given them adequate information. This is an ongoing propaganda theme on CIA-run radio from Honduras, aimed at mobilizing anti-draft activity in Nicaragua, and its use by a human rights organization constitutes one more example of war propaganda being retailed as human rights information. In fact, Sandinista soldiers receive four months of pre-combat training, much more than the six weeks' basic training US troops receive, and have deeply impressed foreign journalists with their combat skills.

Americas Watch, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have praised the government's action in those cases but still raise one outstanding case, in the northern border hamlet of Leimus in 1981. (Amnesty International's March 1986 report devotes as much space to this incident as it does to all contra abuses.) The Leimus case, during "Red Christmas" of that year, acquired international attention because of highly publicized charges by Miskito contra leader Stedman Fagoth of 80 Miskitos murdered, some of them, he said, buried alive. Americas Watch and Amnesty have reported that 17 prisoners were apparently shot and killed there, which Amnesty ascribes to a reaction by Sandinista soldiers who found that several well-liked companions had been tortured to death. (Over 100 Sandinista soldiers and pro-Sandinista civilians were killed during Red Christmas, many of them raped and/or tortured, in what was the first major attack by the Reagan administration against Nicaragua.) Americas Watch has called for a public trial and punishment of those responsible, although it says the government may have punished them privately. The government-supported human rights organization, in a response to Amnesty's March 1986 report, says that according to its information between 16 and 18 were killed at Leimus, but that conflicting testimony and the dispersion of witnesses made it impossible to determine what happened sufficient to get a conviction. It reports, however, that the soldiers the government believes were responsible for the incident are ordered confined to the area around the mine at Rosita. Since subsequent incidents of this type have been punished with extremely lengthy prison terms, there seems to be no reason, other than conflictive evidence and a trail long cold, not to prosecute in this case.

Judicial. Americas Watch makes the correct point that the Popular Anti-Somocista Tribunals (TPAs), set up for trying those accused of counterrevolutionary violence, can be subject to political abuse (as can any judicial system; constitutional safeguards did not prevent the imprisoning of American citizens for their political views during the 1950s and 1960s). Americas Watch has a particularly compelling argument here, since special courts are always dangerous. In the British "Diplock" courts used in recent years in Northern Ireland, for example, defendants have been denied the right to a trial by jury and have been convicted exclusively based on their own confession obtained by coercion, even when the confession was not written and the defendant not only repudiated it but denied having ever made it. Human rights organizations have not been able to cite cases of judicial abuse of this type involving the Nicaraguan TPAs. Indeed, some of their points regarding the judicial system seem to make the opposite case. For example, both Americas Watch and Amnesty International speak of detention of political adversaries under the emergency laws, and suggest that their release after a few days without being charged or brought to trial indicates that the government may have had no case in the first place. If the TPA rules of evidence were as lax as the human rights organizations had feared, the government would have had no trouble bringing them to trial anyway.

The mere fact that human rights organizations focus as much attention as they do on minor prison shortcomings such as hot, stuffy cells—hardly unusual conditions in tropical countries—or air-conditioned cells that are too cool (these have repeatedly been cited as examples of mistreatment of prisoners, and the suggestion is made that these conditions may have been deliberately produced to aid in interrogation) is the most eloquent testimony of the generally humane treatment that detainees receive. In the United States, harsher interrogation techniques are often applied to teenage shoplifters, to say nothing of the monstrous conditions inside US prisons themselves.

Human rights organizations do not consider it their place to make such comparisons with other countries, since the purpose of their work is to suggest improvements in the country being studied, not to aid in an international propaganda campaign like the Reagan administration's. Nonetheless, a report like Amnesty's, released weeks before a vote on contra aid in the US Congress, inevitably has an effect far beyond Nicaragua. Indeed, this appears to have been the intention: Amnesty's report was published in English, with an accompanying press release, also in English. This caused considerable delay in obtaining Nicaraguan government reaction to the report because officials had to wait for it to be translated.

What they don't talk about

Worse than what the international human rights organizations do cover is what they do not cover. They tend to ignore, as a matter of policy, what anyone not willfully blind can see are the main human rights violations in Nicaragua today.

Americas Watch, for example, carefully shies away from taking a position on the war. "The Americas Watch has no general position on whether the US should aid the contras; that is beyond our scope," it writes in its March 1986 report. Yet, from a Nicaraguan point of view, it is impossible to discuss human rights in Nicaragua without taking a position against the war, since that is the principal source of human rights violations and arguably very nearly the exclusive one. President Daniel Ortega, speaking to the annual May Day rally in Managua earlier this year, spoke of 26,688 victims of the US-run war to date, 14,893 of them dead ("We are speaking both of those who died defending the revolution and those who died as instruments of Yankee aggression," he said), and spoke of the right to life, the right to education and health, the right to work, the right of a people to self-determination, sovereignty and national independence, the just aspirations of the Nicaraguan people to better living conditions and peace. All of these are being systematically and deliberately violated by the government of the United States, which, through its contra proxies, is far and away the leading abuser of human rights in the country.

Since this matter is outside the writ of human rights organizations, their reports must resort to legalistic definitions that often verge on the absurd. If the contras murder the unarmed and defenseless family of a Nicaraguan peasant, this will merit a paragraph in a human rights report. If the peasant, understandably dubious that the paragraph will save him from similar contra action next time, moves to a settlement and starts to carry a gun wherever he goes, he becomes a legitimate contra military target. The idea that the peasant is a soldier preparing to go into combat is ridiculous, but human rights organizations are reluctant to mention such cases as instances of human rights abuses and are attacked if they do. The American liberal publication In These Times noted in a March 12, 1986, article on a human rights report by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) that "criticism of the WOLA report surfaced after some reporters discovered that some of those murdered by the contras were armed civilians, arguably making them military targets."

The result is that it is impossible to place the attacks in the context of a deliberate policy of terror in the Nicaraguan countryside that has nothing to do with military objectives. During a recent Managua press conference, one journalist for a major US newspaper repeatedly asked whether the people who were killed when the contras attacked a settlement were armed. "Of course they were armed and fighting," replied an Austrian who was building a health clinic and school in the settlement. "If they hadn't been, we would all be dead! Dead!" and drew his finger across his throat for emphasis.

Human rights organizations do not feel themselves able to object to the contra war per se, but only to the contras' lack of care in distinguishing between civilians and combatants, and their tendency to murder prisoners. Here they are purveying the worst illusion of all. To ask the contras to cease murdering civilians who support the government is to ask them to put themselves out of business. Their entire strategy in the Nicaraguan countryside is aimed at separating the population from the Sandinista government and Sandinista popular organizations, in essence, to treat the revolution as the Reagan Administration would like it treated: as nine comandantes separate from the population. Terror is the only instrument at the contras’ disposal to accomplish this goal.

Human rights organizations avoided denouncing the contras for their attacks last August on two boats on the Rìo Escondido between the towns of Rama and Bluefields. There, as in many other instances, the contras clearly intended to convey the message that it was dangerous to ride in any vehicle with a soldier or government official. (In reality, the presence of soldiers on board the second boat was the only thing that kept all the passengers from being killed, according to 17 foreigners who were on the boat and spoke later with reporters.) For a human rights organization to accept attacks on civilian vehicles as legitimate because soldiers are on board to defend the civilians is an extremely dangerous precedent. It would follow that a contra terrorist attack on a city bus would be acceptable—if the contras had the capability—on the ground that the bus was carrying a soldier who was returning home. The contras have reportedly attempted to launch terrorist bombing campaigns against buses in Managua in recent months, but so far the police has broken up their operations.

Some human rights organizations state privately that they do not list such attacks for fear of being discredited as pro-Sandinista, anti-interventionist or "political." They add that they have plenty of other, more clear-cut cases of deliberate contra terror against unarmed civilians who were nowhere near a "military target," so it is unnecessary. By taking that position, however, they leave themselves open to future assertions that contra atrocities "have gone down," because the citizenry go around armed at all times and are therefore no longer "unarmed civilians."

No one is blaming the human rights organizations for not being able to protect civilians in Nicaragua from contra attacks; this is merely a comment on the difficulty, in the contra war, of maintaining at once fairness, credibility, legalistic definitions and common sense.

Deficient work

The most serious indictment of some of the recent human rights reporting on Nicaragua is the lack of thoroughness of the work. Amnesty International's March 1986 report suggests either extremely sloppy investigation combined with unquestioning reliance on the testimony of members of the rightist Social Christian Party or the equally rightist Permanent Commission on Human Rights or else willful misrepresentation. (Amnesty did not speak to the government-supported human rights commission in preparation of its report, and there is no internal evidence that it spoke to any government officials. According to the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry, Amnesty has not sent anyone to Nicaragua since 1984, at least no one who has asked to speak with any government officials, visit a prison, etc.)

To take only one example, Amnesty lists in the "prisoners of conscience" section of its report Luis Mora, who was arrested on April 28, 1984 and charged with involvement in armed opposition groups. Mr. Mora worked at the time for Radio Impacto, which Amnesty identifies as "a Costa Rican radio station that broadcasts into Nicaragua." Amnesty fails to mention, or does not know, that Radio Impacto functions as the contra radio station in Costa Rica. Amnesty reports that it cabled the Nicaraguan government after his arrest "to urge that he not be held solely for his work as a journalist." The idea that a propagandist arrested for working for enemy radio in wartime is a "prisoner of conscience" undermines the whole idea of the prisoner of conscience category and demeans those who have received it. It is also the height of hypocrisy, unless Amnesty International plans in retrospect to award prisoner of conscience status to Lord Haw Haw and Tokyo Rose.* Prisoner of conscience status is afforded by Amnesty to prisoners detained for their beliefs, color, sex, ethnic origin, language or religion who have not used or advocated violence. Radio Impacto openly advocates the violent overthrow of the government of Nicaragua, in keeping with its function as a radio station for the armed opposition.
*Lord Haw Haw, Tokyo Rose and Ezra Pound were all arrested for doing radio broadcasts for the Axis Powers during World War II. The British hanged Lord Haw Haw. US authorities imprisoned Tokyo Rose and sent Ezra Pound to an insane asylum. All three differ from the Nicaraguan case in one important respect: all were arrested and imprisoned after the war was over, when they no longer represented any threat to state security or to the war effort.

Amnesty notes that Mora was tried and convicted in June 1984 by the Popular Anti-Somocista Tribunals and was pardoned in September of the same year. Amnesty notes that at the time of his release it had not yet decided whether to consider him a prisoner of conscience.

"Security forces clash"

Mora was arrested again on June 15, 1985, Amnesty reports, "after security forces had clashed with participants in a public demonstration greeting Roman Catholic Cardinal Obando y Bravo on his return from abroad." This is an amazing version of events. Security forces did not "clash with participants" in the demonstration. Police went to the demonstration unarmed in order to avoid provoking a clash, and were savagely attacked by demonstrators from the Coordinadora group of rightwing parties, of which Mora was a prominent member. Sixteen police were hospitalized, some with extremely serious and permanent injuries (one lost an eye after he was hit with a metal pipe). Several Mexican journalists were also singled out for physical attack, after being accused of pro-Sandinista news reporting. The whole episode was widely reported in both foreign and Nicaraguan newspapers at the time and it is bewildering that Amnesty would know so little about it. Interior Minister Tomás Borge's remark about the police injuries, "We do not have a repressive police, we have a very repressed police" was given particularly wide press coverage. Mora was arrested under the Public Order Law for acts of violence. Amnesty reports that it is continuing to investigate the case as a possible prisoner of conscience. Mora was released during the February 1985 visit to Nicaragua of former US President Jimmy Carter.

Amnesty appears to believe that pardons by the courts or under the Ley de Gracia amount to government admission that the prisoner was wrongfully accused. Criteria for invoking this law does include cases where the National Commission for the Preservation and Promotion of Human Rights (CNPPDH), the government-supported human rights organization, determines that there has been a miscarriage of justice or that the sentence meted out has been unduly harsh. But it also includes evidence of rehabilitation, family need and, broadly, healing the wounds of the Nicaraguan family caused by two major conflicts, the Somoza war and the contra war. Human rights organizations should be careful not to assume that commuting of a sentence means necessarily that the original judgment was found to be unfair.

The Pena case

As the English-language edition of this article was going to press, envío received a copy of a letter written to Amnesty by British Labour Party Latin American spokesperson George Foulkes, in which he criticizes Amnesty's report for lack of balance and particularly for the casualness with which it awards "prisoner of conscience" status in Nicaragua. In a reply to Foulkes, Amnesty noted that many were only being "considered" for prisoner of conscience status, and that it only awarded the status definitively after careful investigation. If this is true, it raises questions about what Amnesty considers "careful investigation." Amnesty awards prisoner of conscience status to
Catholic priest Father Luis Amado Pena, for example, who was charged in 1984 with arms trafficking for CIA-run contras. At the time, the government produced film of Fr. Pena meeting with Pedro Hernán Espinoza Sánchez, a prominent agent of the contra organization FDN. Espinoza Sánchez identifies himself as an FDN agent in the film clip and says that he is working to set up the contras' "internal front" inside Nicaragua. The two carry on a lengthy discussion about contra activities. Pena expresses the hope that they will unite their activities with the Costa Rican-based contra group ARDE, noting that one of the heads of ARDE, José Dávila, is his best friend.
* Pena was never held in jail but was confined to the grounds of a Catholic seminary in Managua for two months while awaiting trial. The government then released him and dropped the charges, in what it called a goodwill gesture to the Catholic hierarchy. In fact, all of the persons Amnesty mentions in the "prisoner of conscience" section of its report had been released from detention before the report was published; in Pena's case, a year and a half before. Fr. Pena is then shown handling weapons and grenades that are being passed to him by contra leader Espinoza Sánchez. A third clip shows Pena getting out of a car and passing a blue bag to a man in another car. Police move in, open the bag in Pena's presence, and find grenades inside.

Amnesty claims, based on Pena's assertions, that Pena was set up in the third film clip by someone he knew only by face who had offered him a ride, then stopped his car and asked Pena to hand the bag to someone in the other car. Amnesty does not mention the other two film clips, and the reader would have no idea that they exist. Amnesty concludes that the government "appeared to have falsified evidence" in the case. If the government did set Pena up, it seems to have had no difficulty obtaining his cooperation. This appears to be yet another case of Amnesty's willingness to rely credulously on the testimony of one side.

Amnesty usually does not credit its sources but it appears to have depended heavily on information supplied by the Permanent Human Rights Commission (CPDH). The CPDH is an organization on the far right, closely tied to the Social Christian Party. According to The Washington Post, the US government funds the CPDH through a pseudo-private foundation. (The CPDH denies this.) This is not to dismiss the CPDH's information, any more than information provided by the government-supported CNPPDH. It is to suggest that reliance on its reports as if it were a disinterested organization is naive. The CPDH attempts to depict itself as "independent" and as the continuity of the CPDH that existed before the Sandinista revolutionary triumph. The CPDH is not independent and is no more the continuity of the pre-revolutionary CPDH than La Prensa is the continuity of the pre-revolutionary La Prensa*. Most of the CPDH board quit the organization shortly after the revolutionary triumph. They included Roberto Argüello Hurtado, who served as president of the Supreme Court until last year when he was appointed Ambassador to France; Uriel Molina, a Catholic priest whom Cardinal Obando y Bravo has tried to expel from the country; and Edgard Parrales, also a priest (now undergoing laicization) and currently Nicaragua's Ambassador to the Organization of American States.
*In 1980, 80% of La Prensa's staff, including the editor, Xavier Chamorro, quit the paper and set up another paper down the street when a majority of La Prensa's stockholders took steps to move the paper politically to the right.

"Special measures"

Amnesty's report is careless on a number of other points as well. It refers to the use of "special measures" regarding some persons in Miskito areas of the Atlantic Coast in 1982. It says this term was "apparently used to signify summary execution."

"Apparently," according to whom? Amnesty does not say, but the charge was originally made by Jose Alvaro Baldizón, a Nicaraguan émigré who is being presented at press conferences by the US State Department and whose testimony Americas Watch has denounced on a number of points as simply "not credible." Americas Watch noted that some of the persons listed on a purported Interior Ministry memorandum Baldizón produced as having been subject to "special measures" had not been summarily executed at all but "are alive and free in Nicaragua, according to sources in the Moravian Church." Amnesty did not take note of this, although the Americas Watch letter to Baldizón containing this remark was written in December 1985 and made available in human rights circles months before the Amnesty report came out. [For a copy, see Americas Watch's March 4, 1986 report, "Human Rights in Nicaragua, 1985-1986."]

Amnesty also does not print any comment on this matter from the Nicaraguan government. Interior Minister Tomás Borge has said that "special measures" meant covert operations, including infiltration and surveillance of contra units. Borge denied that "special measures" could include murder. (Americas Watch was unable to reach any definitive conclusion as to what "special measures" meant.)

Such carelessness in preparing reports seriously undermines the credibility of human rights materials on Nicaragua. One could also quarrel with the Amnesty report on its general tone, which tends to reflect the Reagan Agenda on human rights reporting from Nicaragua. For example, Amnesty gives relatively scant attention to contra atrocities and US complicity in them (it gives equal attention to a single Sandinista incident, the Leimus case, that occurred five years ago). It devotes fully a third as much space as it gives the entire issue of contra abuses to the question of conscientious objector status for draftees in the Nicaraguan army. The reader is left to wonder why, since Amnesty acknowledges that "no specific cases of draft-age men having been detained and tried for refusing military service on grounds of conscientious objection have come to the attention of Amnesty International."

The reason may be the tremendous amount of press coverage devoted to the issue of the Nicaraguan draft, press coverage that is itself a product of Reagan administration efforts. The administration had once hoped that the military draft would begin to cause disaffection among Nicaraguan youth who support the Sandinista revolution. (Secretary of State George Schultz inadvertently acknowledged that the youth’s support for the Sandinistas is stronger than that of older Nicaraguans by his objection to the government's decision to lower the voting age to 16 in the 1984 elections.) There was even hopeful talk in Washington at one point that the draft might ultimately provoke a split in the Sandinista army.

The conscientious objector issue involves several considerations that Amnesty ignores. First, conscientious objector status is not an internationally accepted human rights standard (no other Central American army accepts such status, nor do the armies of many other countries, such as Ireland). Second, to the extent possible in a war being fought on its own territory, Nicaragua has sought to accommodate religious objections to war. Religious leaders are exempted from combat. Active members of small evangelical Protestant sects that only have one or two churches in the entire country are located close to home so they can take part in weekly church services. Mennonites, who have a long history of religious pacifism, do not have to serve.

Amnesty also printed without comment a finding by a US Congressional committee that the CIA's publication of the book Psychological Operations recommending murder of civilian Sandinista officials and political activists did not constitute an "intentional violation" of an US Executive Order banning assassinations. Amnesty could easily have pointed out that senior CIA official Dwayne R. Clarridge (code-named Dewey) had said that the CIA carried out murders of teachers, judges and other public officials, and that the Congressional Intelligence Oversight Committees had known about it since 1983. (Dewey was quoted in the highly publicized book by Christopher Dickey With the Contras, which appeared months before Amnesty's report.)

"Draining the sea"

Although more carefully researched, the March 4, 1986 Americas Watch report has some serious shortcomings as well. The report criticizes the evacuation by the government of peasants from northern border areas with Honduras to settlements further inland, which it characterizes as in part a "well-known counterinsurgency strategy of draining the sea (the social base) for the fish (the guerrillas)." Americas Watch compares the operation to military depopulation of rebel held areas of El Salvador.

The comparison with El Salvador is spurious. The principal reason for carrying out the evacuation (a reason Americas Watch doesn’t mention and of which it seems unaware) was to give combat helicopters an area of hot pursuit of contra forces before they could make it back to the sanctuary of Honduras. El Salvador is not the victim of an invasion launched from a foreign country and has no need of such hot pursuit; its purposes are entirely counterinsurgent.

Second, as Americas Watch has noted in the past, the Salvadoran government uses deliberate aerial bombing of civilian populations to kill them or force them into refugee settlements. The Nicaraguan evacuation was precisely to avoid civilian casualties.

In denouncing the move as "forcible relocation of thousands of [Nicaragua's] citizens," Americas Watch fails to note that the evacuation, carried out without physical injury to anyone, was a small price to pay for the dramatic drop in contra terror that followed. The evacuation operation contributed greatly to the safety of coffee harvesters in the north this year, since the helicopters were a key factor in keeping contras out of the area. Last year the contras murdered over forty coffee pickers, including 20 volunteers killed in one particularly brutal episode. Failure to notice this suggests a dubious form of accounting.

Further, Americas Watch does not appear to have found any particular contra sympathy among relocated peasants, although the report says they talked with them freely. In El Salvador, and in similar situations such as in Vietnam and Laos during the Indochina War, there has usually been little difficulty getting evacuees to speak of their hatred for the government and their affection for the insurgents. (Journalists have also noted little contra sympathy among the evacuees, although obvious unhappiness at being moved.)

Americas Watch complains that the evacuees were given very little time to pack their belongings, and as a result lost much of what they had. (The organization notes that farmers were allowed to go back later to get more belongings, but found that much had been lost or damaged by the elements in the meantime.) This is an example not only of an odd form of accounting, but of the whole problem with human rights reporting from Nicaragua. While it is true that farmers lost much of their belongings (the government has tried as best it can to make restitution), their losses are hardly unusual in wartime and quite mild compared to what other Nicaraguan civilians have suffered at the hands of the US-run contras. Human rights organizations usually do not criticize contra attacks on settlements or cooperatives where whole communities are burned down with much loss of life and personal property, since these constitute "economic targets." (Rights groups do try to suggest, somewhat lamely, that the contras should concentrate their fire on "economic targets" and "combatants," ignoring the fact that the "economic targets" are the peasants' farms and livelihood and the "combatants" are the peasants themselves who are trying to save their own lives and those of their families. This is but one example of an attempt to apply Geneva conventions drawn up for other wars to foreign-run terrorist attacks against Nicaragua.)

Worst of all, Americas Watch awards itself military competence (in fact, it would be a good idea for human rights organizations dealing with war-torn countries to engage a military expert instead of relying so heavily on lawyers). It states in its March 4, 1986, report that contra activity has died down in the areas from which the peasants had been evacuated, and argues that the government should now allow peasants to return to their homes. The suggestion was premature. The contras resumed their attacks in the area a few days after the report was published. It seems unlikely that the Nicaraguan government, or most area residents, would share Americas Watch's view as to the safety of the area.

As with the Amnesty report, what is particularly objectionable about the Americas Watch March 4, 1986, report is the tone, which seems clearly aimed more at maintaining credibility with US newspaper editors and Congressional representatives than at a straight reporting of the facts.

"We are not in a position to say that one side's abuses are worse than another's," Americas Watch says in a flabbergasting opening passage. Having established its credentials in Washington with this statement, Americas Watch then goes on to denounce US aid to the contras on the grounds of their human rights violations. Human rights organizations attempt to seem unbiased, or balanced, and by US standards often appear to be so, since "balanced" for rights organizations means equidistant from the Reagan Administration on the one side and the Sandinista government on the other, whereas the US press has come to consider "balanced" as equidistant from the Reagan Administration and its Democratic Party opponents, both of whom agree on opposing the Sandinistas. This is as far out on a limb as human rights organizations can go and still maintain access to the American news media, an access they would indeed be foolish to lose. We are in no position to solve this dilemma for human rights organizations. They are doing a difficult job in an increasingly restricted political space. But readers of human rights reports should bear in mind that a politically acceptable face in the US is one thing; a balanced treatment of human rights in Nicaragua is another.

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A Disarming Proposal

The Politics of Human Rights Reporting on Nicaragua

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