Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law


Helen Michael

First Page



This Article examines whether contemporary international law is equipped to address the recurrent phenomenon of covert involvement by a state in internal conflicts of another state. Ms. Michael analyzes this phenomenon in the context of United States assistance to the Contras in collective self-defense on behalf of El Salvador, and Nicaragua's concomitant support of the Salvadoran Rebels' attempts to overthrow the existing El Salvador Government. Ms. Michael summarizes the extensive history of conflict between the United States and Nicaragua culminating in the contemporary dispute existing between the Reagan Administration and the Sandinista Government. Both the Sandinistas and the Reagan Administration charged the other with violating international law through waging an unlawful war of indirect aggression.

In outlining the basic substantive and procedural requirements of international law imposed on any exercise of individual or collective self-defense, Ms. Michael examines governing provisions of the United Nations and Organization of American States Charters. The Article then addresses three substantive requirements under customary international law entitling individual or collective self-defense: 1) a state must exhaust peaceful procedures; 2) the responsive measure of force employed must be necessary; and 3) a defensive use of force must be proportional to the character and magnitude of the attack. Ms. Michael next appraises the merits of the Reagan Administration's position supporting the Contras in light of these governing legal principles. Ms. Michael concludes that the actual context underlying the dispute between the Sandinistas and the Reagan Administration indicates that neither government had "clean hands" in Central America, with the United States becoming another aggressor in the conflict.