The principle of "non-intervention", democracy and human rights in Latin America: the Nicaragua case

The debate on the principle of “non-intervention” has once again taken centre stage by justifying the abstention of Argentina and Mexico from voting for the condemnatory resolution recently approved by the OAS Permanent Council and the UN Human Rights Council.

In the 1960s, Argentina's endorsement of the non-intervention principle took its toll on the governments of Presidents Arturo Frondizi (1962) and Arturo Illia (1966), overthrown by civil-military groups supported by Washington for, among other reasons, opposing the US intervention in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Rooted in the tradition of Latin American diplomacy, the rationale for this principle was to protect our countries from the open intervention of the US and the USSR, within the framework of the East-West confrontation that prevailed during the Cold War.

In the 1970s, anti-communist military dictatorships used this principle in response to the Department of State's accusations, under James Carter's administration, of human rights violations perpetrated south of the Rio Grande. When Ronald Reagan took office in the 1980s, the interference changed direction: Washington sought to prevent Nicaragua from becoming "another Cuba" at the gates of the Empire after the Sandinista Revolution (1979) toppled Anastasio Somoza's decrepit dictatorship.

In March 1985, Argentine President Raúl Alfonsín told Reagan in the gardens of the White House that Latin America had to leave the Cold War behind, and that rather than the alternative between revolution and counter-revolution, what was at stake was the choice between dictatorship and democracy.

Forty years later, the leader of that Nicaraguan revolution, Daniel Ortega, closes the full-360°-circle and takes the place of the dictator he displaced: he has transformed himself into a new Somoza, repressing protests, quelling critical voices, imprisoning opposition leaders and pretending to perpetuate himself in power. What is more, as the dictators of the time did in the face of the Carter Administration's human rights policy, together with the Venezuelan regime of Nicolás Maduro they denounce "external interference" and accuse "US imperialism" of attacking their countries’ national sovereignty.

As in the Cold War, the OAS is once again a sounding board and the scene of this battle between principles and geopolitical alignments. Yet, at the same time, the hemispheric body is the only supranational body on the continent that contains almost all countries and governments of all kinds. There, the Argentine government refrained -alongside with Mexico- from condemning the repression exercised by the Nicaraguan government and from demanding the release of the detained opposition leaders.

The OAS’s declaration has been approved by 26 votes -including the United States, Chile, Colombia, and Peru- during a special session of the Permanent Council on June 15. Bolivia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines voted against, while Argentina, Belize, Dominica, Honduras and Mexico abstained. Nicaragua's delegation condemned the multilateral organization's interference, and accused the United States of deploying an "interventionist policy".

The official statement explaining the abstention of Argentina and Mexico in the OAS vote states that: "The Argentine Republic and Mexico, committed to the respect and promotion of human rights from an integral conception within which civil, political and electoral rights are contained —in addition to the inalienable value of equality and economic and social rights-, express their concern about recent developments in Nicaragua. In particular, the arrest of opposition political figures, the review of which would help the Nicaraguan electoral process to receive appropriate international recognition and accompaniment. We have witnessed, in several countries in the region, unacceptable cases of political persecution. We reject this behavior".

But it then goes on to explain their refusal to support the condemnation of the Nicaraguan government: "We do not agree with the countries that, far from supporting the normal development of democratic institutions, leave aside the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs, so dear to our history". It adds: "Nor with the pretense of imposing guidelines from the outside or unduly prejudging the development of electoral processes". After that, both governments summoned their ambassadors in Managua, taking distance from the support to the Nicaraguan regime; yet the Argentine government again refrained from condemning Nicaragua at the UN Human Rights Council based on "a tradition of not signing joint documents against a country" and maintaining that "there are no ISO standards to determine the best electoral system".

Thus, the entire path conquered over the last forty years of regional, hemispheric and international commitments and instruments, legal and political, in defense of human rights and democracy, is not considered in this matter. A path, on the other hand, in which Argentina knew how to be at the forefront and for which it gained recognition throughout the world.

The argument that such tools are applied only by powerful countries and against weak countries for geopolitical expediency is often an alibi used by rulers and regimes who trample on their societies, harass their critics, or limit freedoms, in the name of whichever ideologies, and do not want any "foreign power" to meddle in their affairs. Similarly, the argument of the "double standard" or "hemiplegia" of any principled international policy invalidates the possibility of recognizing advances in international humanitarian law and international commitments in favor of democracy.

When the principle of "non-intervention" is used to escape from regional, hemispheric and international commitments in the field of human rights and the defense of democracy, it is often the case that societies are not protected but that those regimes and rulers are the ones who harm them. This can be justified by reasons of realpolitik or the prevalence of other principles or commitments. In such a case, the costs of making decisions that are usually suffered when made by another country must be borne, ignoring or neglecting claims that we consider as fair. The accusation of "double standard" loses its strength when doing the same thing one criticizes. And, it weakens the possibility of protecting human rights and democracy through the agencies, mechanisms and commitments that exist in the matter, beyond other geopolitical interests and intra or extra-regional considerations.


Fabián Bosoer is a political scientist and journalist. Master in International Relations. Professor and researcher at THE UNTREF/IDEIA, editor-in-chief of the Opinion section of Clarín. Author of Generales y Embajadores (Ediciones B, 2005), Malvinas, capítulo final (Capital Intelectual, 2007), Braden o Perón, la historia oculta (El Ateneo, 2012), amongst other books.

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