Lecture Notes








































Nicaragua v. United States

The Contras were an anti-communist rebel group trying to overthrow the elected government of Nicaragua.

The ICJ case called Nicaragua v. United States (1984) provides a good case study for the how World Court works—and sometimes doesn’t work well. Here is the story:

In 1984, democratic elections were held in Nicaragua, and the people voted for a communist government. The communist leaders were called “the Sandinistas.” The Sandinista government was popular—it enjoyed wide support among the population. Nonetheless, some right-wing rebel groups opposed it. The rebels were known as “the Contras” (short for “Counter-Revolutionaries).

The Contras were bad guys who routinely kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered civilians. On the bright side, at least they were anti-communists. That, at least, was the view of Ronald Reagan, our president in 1984. Reagan sent the Contras some $35 million in secret military aid, so that they could continue their campaign of terror against the democratically elected communist government of Nicaragua.

In 1984, the Sandinista government went to the United Nations and tried to “sue” the United States in court, the World Court.  The Sandinistas argued: The United States has violated the sovereignty of Nicaragua by meddling in our internal affairs. We would like the U.S. to stop at once and pay us reparations (money for damages). 

Now here is the salient thing about the World Court: It can only hear a case if all sides agree. (This is usually called arbitration. In contrast, in civil courts, you can sue someone whether or not they agree to being sued).  Would the United States agree to adjudication? Yes, the U.S. agreed. Apparently it felt that it had done nothing wrong. But then things started to go badly for the U.S.  

The World Court agreed with the Sandinistas. Apparently, giving $35 million in military assistance to a rebel group that is trying to overthrow a democratically elected government—that, apparently, does constitute “meddling in the internal affairs of another sovereign state.”
The World Court found the U.S. guilty, and it ordered the U.S. to stop meddling at once, and furthermore ordered the U.S. to pay Nicaragua reparations (money to compensate Nicaragua for the damage that the U.S. had done.

At this point, the U.S. refused to accept the verdict of the court. “We are not going to pay Nicaragua anything.”  

This is against the rules. Once you agree to have your case heard by the World Court, you are not allowed to change your mind, just because you don’t like the court’s ruling. So the World Court went to the Security Council—(the muscle of the United Nations)—and asked the Council to force the U.S. to pay.  

What do you think happened next?


Check Your Understanding

  1. What do you think happened next?
  2. When both sides in a dispute agree to have their dispute settled by a judge, this is called ____________________.
  3. When the losing side in a dispute or conflict is forced to pay money to the winning side, this is called ____________________.
  4. In the United States, the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. In the UN system, it’s the _____________________, also known as the ____________________.
  5. How does the ICJ case Nicaragua v. United States (1984) illustrate the need for Security Council reform? For example, does it show an abuse of power? How could this abuse be prevented in the future? Explain.