Human Rights: Three Critiques of Contra Human Rights Agency
Six months ago contra leader Enrique Bermúdez offered this candid prediction: “The fight will take another configuration… We will see more sabotage, maybe attacks on Sandinista personalities, and why not terrorism?” This style of fighting would not be entirely new, however; Americas Watch, in “Human Rights in Nicaragua, August 1987–August 1988,” summarized previous contra conduct in a few words: “Since their attacks began in late 1981, the contras have engaged in a consistent pattern of violations of the laws of war.”
Since 1981, the US government has funded, equipped and trained the contra army, widely acknowledged by human rights organizations throughout the world to be serious and systematic violators of the most basic human rights. The US government also funds a contra human rights organization—the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH)—which is charged with monitoring abuses within the organization. The task is much like the proverbial fox guarding the chicken coop, with far more shattering consequences. It should come as no great surprise that the vast sums of US money allocated to this group have failed to produce results. Three critiques of the ANPDH are especially devastating.
The 1988 Americas Watch reportThe Americas Watch report gives some background on the group’s funding: “According to its second biannual Report on Human Rights in the Nicaraguan Resistance (January 1988), the ANPDH is the recipient of $3 million from the US government from the October 1986 $100 million allocation by Congress to aid the Nicaraguan Resistance. The State Department has allocated US$2.5 million to the ANPDH, of which expenditures of over $1,050,000 have been documented."
What kind of human rights watchdogging has the ANPDH done with all this money? Hardly a whimper, much less a bark. Confronted with abundant evidence of deadly contra attacks on farming cooperatives throughout Nicaragua, the group states in its January 1988 report that the cooperatives "achieved military status in the civil war, due both to the militarization of Nicaraguan society and the growing importance of state cooperatives in sustaining the country's crippled economy." Having cited this, Americas Watch asserts simply: "ANPDH is wrong as a matter of law. The fact that state cooperatives may be important in sustaining the country's crippled economy does not turn them into military targets."
The ANPDH goes on to argue that combat equipment "on hand in some of the cooperatives appears to be twice the amount of that which could be perceived as a self-defensive system." Americas Watch notes that the ANPDH thus attempts to "justify attacks on... all... coops by referring to what may be the case at some unnamed coops". To the ANPDH argument that some coop members are "involved in military activities," thus “losing their immunity as non-combatants," AW replies that coop members "are generally enthusiastic about having the opportunity to share in the ownership of land" and that many are strong supporters of the government that has made this possible "and are willing to take up arms to fight the contras." The coops must defend themselves "because of the likelihood that they will be attacked by the contras."
But the fact that some members are armed for self-defense does not justify attacking the coop, and much less does it justify the slaughter of civilians, as Americas Watch has described the attacks against the civilian population. "The Nicaraguan Resistance acts in reckless disregard of civilian life or with deliberate intent to kill civilians when conducting coop attacks," says Americas Watch.
Americas Watch has investigated specific instances of contra terror against agricultural cooperatives. In late 1987, a farming coop near San Miguelito, Rio San Juan, was attacked, leaving 11 civilians (including five children) dead and 29 civilians (including 15 children) injured. Americas Watch sent a letter to the Nicaraguan Resistance requesting information on this case, which remains unanswered. The contras never responded to the Americas Watch letter of December 31,1987 requesting information on a contra attack on a coop in Chontales where one woman was killed and another woman and two children wounded.
In its November 1987 report, Americas Watch concluded that American engineer Benjamin Linder "appeared to have been summarily executed at the site of a hydroelectric project...on April 28, 1987 by the contras after an ambush."
According to Americas Watch, "The ANPDH has conducted useful investigations of alleged violations by the Nicaraguan Resistance by interviewing its combatants involved in attacks." In the Benjamin Linder case, "the ANPDH told Americas Watch that it had taken the statements of some of the combatants. Curiously, its report of January 1988 does not refer to any such investigation, and merely states that the ANPDH was not provided with access to witnesses... by the Nicaraguan government… or the opportunity to inspect the site, or to verify autopsy results with an impartial pathologist" [their emphasis]. The ANPDH stated: "As a result, the contradictions between media and official government accounts of Mr. Linder's death cannot be reconciled."
Americas Watch reacts strongly to this excuse: "Since the ANPDH is for all intents and purposes a US State Department funded arm of the Nicaraguan Resistance—that is, the military enemy—it is preposterous to suggest that the Nicaraguan government might grant it permission to conduct investigations inside the territory of Nicaragua.... This is an inadequate excuse for not coming to a conclusion on the basis of evidence available to it, however, and suggests either that ANPDH did not have access to enough of the contra combatants to determine what happened, or that its conclusions were adverse to the Nicaraguan Resistance and were suppressed." It should also be noted that the 1988 AW report offers some strong criticism of the Nicaraguan government's human rights behavior. Some of the criticism is well-taken; and envío will subject it to careful scrutiny in the near future.
Scottish lawyer reports on ANPDHAttorney Paul Laverty, who has worked for several years in Nicaragua on various human rights themes under the auspices of Scottish Medical Aid to Nicaragua, filed a human rights report on May 10, 1988. In it, he described the pastoral journey he had made during April with Father Enrique Blandón, the Catholic priest in Waslala, situated about 225 miles northeast of Managua in the Matagalpa region. (Father Blandón was kidnapped by the contras for about some 11 days in October 1986.)
During the trip to visit many villages throughout the vast parish, the lawyer and the priest learned that another priest, Father Ubaldo Gervasoni, was being held by the contras. Laverty, Blandon and others went immediately to where Gervasoni was being held and conversed at length with the contras in charge. Gervasoni was released the next day. He told his story at a Mass in Managua commemorating the first anniversary of Ben Linder's assassination.
But Laverty had an encounter on April 18, one day before learning of Gervasoni's kidnapping, which taught him something about the ANPDH. That day he talked to a contra in the community of San Esteban. "He told me he was a contra human rights observer and had done a course on human rights in Honduras. I had been on the lookout for such a person and in previous talks with about 12 contras had asked if they had ever traveled with such a person. I was met with blank looks and they told me they didn’t know what I was talking about."
The contra told Laverty that he had completed a human rights course in April 1987 organized by the ANPDH. "He said he was lectured by an American woman for three days. I talked to him at length. He could not remember anything about the content of his course, and from my conversation with him it was clear he had not grasped even the barest essentials of international humanitarian law."
To Laverty’s questions as to whether the contras had ever reported a human rights abuse in his year as an observer, or if he had ever witnessed one, or ever heard of one, he said “no.” Laverty continued: “I have a close-up photo of the diploma awarded by the ANPDH. In addition, he pulled out a card covered in plastic, which was a summary of Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. I pointed to a line that emphasized the protection of the civilian population. I noticed he did not understand it.” When Laverty asked the contra if he had done any preparatory study before working for the diploma, “he replied ´no’ and admitted that he could neither read nor write.”
Laverty notes that the ANPDH claims to have trained nearly 90 observes who travel with the contras. “If [this observer[ is typical,” he concludes, “the project would seem to be quite pointless.”
Report by the Catholic Institute for International RelationsA third critique of the ANPDH is found in a 1987 report, “Right to Survive: Human Rights in Nicaragua,” by the Catholic Institute for International Relations. Parts of this report were published in the October 1987 issue of envío.
The book, while not pulling any punches in its criticism of human rights problems in Nicaragua, places these problems in the context of the US-sponsored war and Nicaragua’s consequent need for security. It also discusses the broad range of human rights, emphasizing social and economic rights as well as civil and political ones and noting that “most human rights groups are Western, in ideology if not always in location, and Western-style democracies have never taken economic and social rights as seriously as political and civil rights.”
Before analyzing the ANPDH, the report gives some background on its predecessor organization. A Commission for Human Rights was set up by the UNO (National Opposition Union, the contra organization) in August 1985 to investigate human rights abuses allegedly committed by contra forces. “According to Amnesty International, a representative of this commission claimed in May 1986 that it had investigated 36 cases of complaints and had applied sanctions in 33 of them. Of the 14 cases of which details are available, only one, a case of multiple rape, involves physical abuse against Nicaraguans during military operations. Eight cases relate to abuses against other contras and four to theft or pillage.... No human rights organization has been able to detect any reduction in abuses by the contras since the UNO Commission for Human Rights was set up."
After this Commission was closed down in August 1986, the ANPDH opened offices in Honduras and Costa Rica.
According to "Right to Survive," the ANPDH claims that it is independent of any political group "but was described by a US State Department official as the successor to the UNO Commission and has an office in a contra base camp at Yamale in Honduras. Its first report was about an incident at El Níspero on 9 November 1986 in which a contra force attacked a cooperative settlement and, after overwhelming the three soldiers and one militia man defending the village, killed a one-year-old baby by slitting its throat and abducted two women and a baby in arms. Two other women and another one-year-old child were killed as was a third woman who had been in the guard post at the time of the attack. The ANPDH report exonerates the contra forces from any blame, claiming against all the evidence that special Sandinista troops sealed off the area after the attack and mutilated the victims."
The Catholic Institute for International Relations report includes a comment with interesting implications. Many human rights groups have concentrated on contra abuses against civilians because they are violations of the rules of war. "This may be necessary," the report concedes, "because the abuses, if proven, then constitute violations of accepted international standards. One consequence of this approach, however, is to admit the possibility of a 'clean' contra war, in which no abuses are committed and only legitimate military targets are attacked.
"The Nicaraguan government maintains that the war itself is illegitimate, not only or even principally because the contras commit human rights violations, but because the contras are surrogates for the present US administration, which has declared war on Nicaragua in all but name. The government sees its defense effort as the defense of national sovereignty against a foreign invader."
This conviction is held not only by the government but by at least 85% of Nicaraguans, who, when polled in Managua in June 1988 by a local private opinion research institute, opposed further US aid to the contras. It is the Achilles' heel of recent US policy toward Nicaragua.