This is a 21-page report (55,000 bytes) from the National Lawyers Guild based on a delegat
This is a 21-page report (55,000 bytes) from the National Lawyers Guild based on a delegation to Panama in March of 1990.
NATIONAL LAWYERS GUILD
REPORT ON PANAMA
THIS REPORT OF THE National Lawyers Guild delegation to Panama was prepared by the delegation's members, Gilma Camargo, Cathleen Connealy, Jose Luis Morin, Karen Snell and Nancy Postero, with special assistance from Dale Wiehoff of the NLG Foundation.
The report was edited by Tim Ledwith. Additional support for this special issue of Guild Notes was provided by Michael Ratner, Haywood Burns, Corliss and Beth Lamont, and the Clara Miller Foundation.
For more information contact:
National Lawyers Guild
55 Avenue of the Americas 3rd floor
New York, New York 10013 212-966-5000
GUILD DELEGATION FINDS NO "JUST CAUSE" FOR U.S. INVASION
AT 12:30 A.M. ON DECEMBER 20, 1989, without any notice, the United States military began dropping bombs into the densely populated barrio of El Chorrillo in Panama City. All that night, explosions blew buildings apart and shook the neighborhood's ubiquitous wood-frame houses. Terrified people, clinging to their screaming children, lay face down on the floors and hoped they would survive. Tracer bullets flew through the streets. Cobra helicopters circled, firing mortars into the cuartel in the center of El Chorrillo, and into the homes surrounding it. Fires broke out as the flimsy houses, most of them built at the beginning of the century, were bombed or hit by tracers. Smoke filled the streets. Whole blocks burned to the ground. In the multi-family apartment buildings, fires raced up the stairways to trap the wounded or elderly who hadn't gotten down in time. Those who could, fled through the gunfire to safety. Many could not. By morning, much of El Chorrillo was smoking rubble. As camouflaged American GI's took control of the city around daybreak, sixteen thousand civilians streamed out of their barrio, homeless and traumatized. A square mile had been flattened, and thousands were wounded or dead.
At home, we watched North American reporters interviewing North American soldiers on television. We heard that only 23 GI's had lost their lives in this "Operation Just Cause," which liberated the Panamanian people from the repression they had endured under 21 years of military dictatorship. We saw pictures of our soldiers being kissed by grateful Panamanian women and congratulated by men wearing "I survived Just Cause" tee shirts. The drug-dealing monster had been deposed, and the rightful, democratically elected heirs could begin to rebuild. When Manuel Noriega was finally captured, the general sentiment in the United States was that we had done the right thing. The few lives lost had been a tragic but worthwhile sacrifice to restore democracy.
But what really happened? Did we get accurate reports? Was this actually a justified " liberation" or simply another political intervention? What was the cost to the Panamanian people? Had there been only two hundred civilian deaths, as the U.S. Southern Command (a.k.a. SouthComm) reported, or thousands, as we had heard by fax from Panama? What about the reports of U.S. troops being involved in human rights violations, such as mass detentions, searches of civilian homes and intimidation of the population? What role was the United States playing in the formation of the new government? And what legal justification existed for that role?
These were the questions that prompted five members of the National Lawyers Guild to go to Panama on a fact-finding mission. During our nine-day visit, from January 27 to February 4, 1990, we met with human rights activists, hospital and morgue personnel, parish priests, bishops, union members and leaders, intellectuals, journalists, university professors, and lawyers. We visited the destroyed neighborhoods of El Chorrillo, San Miguelito and Colon. We interviewed damnificados, refugees of the destruction, at the camps and temporary shelters they now call home. We spoke to political and military prisoners in jail. We conferred with staff at the U.S., Nicaraguan and Cuban embassies. We had lengthy interviews with the International Law Department of the U.S. Army South, and with the new Panamanian Attorney General's office. We talked with members of Noriega's party, the PRD; with many people who are collaborating with the new government; and with those who are critical of both.
Our report follows. We do not claim to have made a scientific study. The report's findings are based, for the most part, on anecdotal evidence. Nevertheless, we believe our interviews provide an accurate picture of the present situation.
These are very confusing times in Panama. The country's entire political framework has been overturned by the invasion, and the new one is not yet established. A sense of national trauma still exists, as does a pervasive fear of what the future may hold. At a minimum, we hope this report will help to make public the invasion's deep and tragic effects upon the Panamanian people.
CIVILIAN CASUALTIES & DAMAGES
THE INVASION BEGAN in the early morning hours of December 20, when simultaneous attacks were launched on most of the small nation's main military targets. The primary attack was directed against the Comandancia, the headquarters of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), located in one of Panama City's poorest neighborhoods. The Comandancia, a huge concrete fortress, was obliterated. Over four hundred bombs were detonated in its immediate vicinity, and a seismological study later reported that the resulting shock exceeded 1 on the Richter scale. The surrounding barrio, El Chorrillo, was destroyed by fires that started on the first night of the invasion and raged for the following few days.
Eyewitnesses in El Chorrillo told us the fires had been ignited by bombs exploding near the cuartel, or by tracer bullets ripping through the neighborhood. Sparks flew from one house to another. One man recounted how he and his neighbors had spent the night fighting the blaze in adjoining homes, so that the fire would not spread to the gas tanks in a welding shop next door.
El Chorrillo was the largest area of destruction, but not the only one. Many other civilian neighborhoods were hit. In San Miguelito, on the outskirts of Panama City, numerous homes were hit by bombs or were strafed. In Colon, on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal, fierce fighting left the PDF marine base a smoldering wreck. A week after the invasion, U.S. helicopters circled a residential area far from the military bases. When a sniper fired a shot from a fifteen-story apartment house, the helicopter crew reportedly launched mortars into that building and several nearby homes. We heard similar reports of military strikes against populated residential areas throughout Panama.
OFFICIAL FIGURES LOW
The number of Panamanians killed in the invasion is unknown, and probably will never be determined with exactitude. Based on concerted effort to verify the actual figure, however, we must conclude that the official numbers are unreasonably low.
SouthComm and the newly installed Panamanian government give official nationwide totals of 202 civilian deaths (down from their original estimates of approximately 250) and 314 combatant deaths. Everyone we spoke to said these figures were unrealistic, given the visible damage to densely populated neighborhoods, as well as the ferocity of the fighting in some areas. The independent human rights groups with whom we spoke estimated at least 2,000 civilian fatalities. The Catholic Church published a figure of 655 verified dead in its publication, Panorama Catolico.
What is most astonishing is that there is no way to be sure. All the records of the deaths have been taken over by the new government, under the direction of SouthComm. Many of the doctors who worked during the first few days of the invasion have been fired, or have received early vacation. There is a feeling that the new government will retaliate against those who criticize it, so many people with information about the deaths will not speak. As a result, independent verification of the official figures is now impossible.
Some direct evidence that the official figures are too low can be gleaned, however, from conversations with the few people who are not too frightened to talk. We were able to meet with several doctors and hospital workers. Some spoke on the condition that their identities would remain secret. This is what we were able to piece together.
Where possible, the bodies of those killed in the invasion were taken to hospitals. The fighting continued for several days, and eventually the hospital morgues were filled over capacity. A pathologist at the Santo Tomas Hospital in Panama City told us the bodies brought there had been stacked on the floor of the morgue when there was no longer any room for them in refrigerated units. Postmortems were performed, and the deaths were registered in hospital records. The names of the identified were listed, along with numbers for the unidentified. After the postmortems, the identified bodies were released for private burial to family members who had located their dead relatives. Bodies of the unidentified were photographed, tagged and buried in mass graves.
From the first days of the invasion, this grim process was supervised by U.S. Army officers. The corpses were taken away from the hospital in U.S. vehicles, and hospital records were controlled by the invasion forces. Eventually, the process was given over, at least in name, to the chief forensic examiner for the new government. He now controls all the hospital records.
The official body count at Santo Tomas Hospital is 71; that is, the records under the government's control show that 71 corpses were processed through the hospital's morgue. We spoke to a woman who volunteered her services at Santo Tomas on Christmas day, five days after the invasion. Her job was to answer the phones and assist family members in the search for their missing relatives. That day, the volunteer told us, she hand-copied a list of 345 dead, and saw another list containing about two hundred additional fatalities.
While many bodies were taken to hospitals, many others were disposed of in different ways. There are reports (which we were unable to verify) of bodies being cremated where they fell by the U.S. troops. One priest in El Chorrillo told us of having to cremate six corpses because they were beginning to putrefy. This probably happened in other places as well, because the fighting often made it impossible to reach hospitals.
In Colon, for example, U.S. troops surrounded the city and launched mortars into its center. Pinned down by crossfire, many civilians were unable to move. A doctor who was working at the hospital in Colon during the invasion told us that no casualties or wounded were brought in for a few days because the hospital was inaccessible. The town's fire chief began to worry that all the dead would pose a health risk. He tried to go out and gather them for burial, but the U.S. Army, which was in control of the hospital, refused to let him do so.
Some bodies may have been lost at sea. A group of Panamanian marines from Colon reportedly tried to escape the fight in a boat, but were hit by helicopter fire, which caused the boat to capsize. The two surviving marines told the Colon doctor we spoke to that ten of their companions had drowned. It is not known where those bodies ended up.
Many of the civilians killed in the invasion were buried in at least seven mass or common graves. Graves at the Jardin de Paz (Garden of Peace) cemetery contain some of the unidentified bodies from the Santo Tomas Hospital. The official count in those graves is 61, yet a cemetery worker who helped dig them said he counted at least ninety in one of the graves and estimates the total to be around two hundred. The number interred in the other mass graves has not yet been determined.
Also unknown is the number of fallen--particularly civilians who died fighting U.S. troops--buried quietly by their own families. Once the invasion forces had occupied Panama, those suspected of any association with the Noriega government were branded as criminals. Many families may have decided to bury dead relatives in their own yards, so as not to arouse the suspicion of the victors. This is all the more likely in light of the intimidating presence of the U.S. troops, who continued to sweep civilian areas after the invasion, arresting and incarcerating any suspected Noriega supporters they found.
Finally, many people are still missing. In the invasion's immediate aftermath, relatives of the missing had nowhere to turn for help in locating them. Nor was there any official effort to determine how many Panamanians actually had disappeared. Even assuming that many of the hundreds or thousands of missing persons are alive, perhaps in the refugee camps, a significant number remain unaccounted for. Indeed, this may help to explain who occupies the mass graves.
REFUGEES & MENTAL TRAUMA
IN EL CHORRILLO ALONE, sixteen thousand people were left homeless by the invasion. The U.S. Army set up a temporary shelter for them at Balboa High School, and in tents surrounding the school building. The refugees were fingerprinted, then received cards authorizing them to enter the camp and to receive food. They slept on mats; rain dripped through the tents. Sickness, crowding, stealing, and lack of privacy made conditions miserable. Many of the people we met described the experience as demeaning, likening it to the treatment of delinquents or prisoners.
Most of the refugees housed in temporary shelters after the invasion eventually found living space with their families or neighbors. ("We've had an invasion of our own," said a taxi driver, describing his small apartment's takeover by in-laws who were left homeless by the El Chorrillo fires.) As the number of people needing more permanent shelter decreased, SouthComm set up a refugee camp in a vacant airplane hangar at Albrook Field. The camp now houses about three thousand refugees. Each family there occupies a tiny cubicle, approximately six feet by six feet in size, separated by flimsy, six-foot-high dividers. U.S. troops continue to control the camp's entrance and exit, but its day-to-day operation has been turned over to the Panamanian Red Cross.
The best current estimates say the refugees will remain at Albrook for at least a year. These people, the poorest of the poor, have no other place to go. They are dependent upon the U.S. and Panamanian governments for all their needs. Some of those we spoke to expressed relatively little dissatisfaction about their present circumstances, though many did worry about whether the housing that the government has promised to rebuild for them will be affordable. Other refugees said they were hungry, complaining that they were only fed two meals a day; on the day of our visit to Albrook, there was no milk for children there to drink.
ORGANIZING FOR HOUSING
The refugees at Albrook have been the most visible, and the most interviewed, victims of the invasion. Not all refugees appear to be so satisfied, however. Several groups in Panama have already organized themselves, and have voiced their demands to the government. About fifty families have taken shelter in a public school, Escuela de la Republica de Chile, during the summer break. (School is presently closed for Panama's summer, which ends in April.) The families recently held a press conference, announcing that they expect the government to move them to new housing before the beginning of the school year.
In Colon, we met with a large group of damnificados who urged us to petition the U.S. government for compensation on their behalf. They presented us with tallies of property losses, as well as moving testimony about the trauma they underwent as a result of the invasion. The Colon refugees asserted that they don't want to live in refugee camps, where privacy and family life are non-existent. Rather, they want homes and medical care, but have no faith in the new Panamanian government's ability or desire to provide for these needs.
Other groups of refugees are currently organizing. More and more of them are likely to come forward seeking compensation in the months ahead.
The most difficult loss to measure, in the wake of the U.S. invasion, is the mental trauma suffered by the people of Panama. The invasion had been expected by many, but it is clear that the devastation inflicted upon the civilian population was a great shock. The horror of fearing for one's life, of hearing and feeling the impact of bombs dropping on your neighborhood, is something that can linger for a long time. Many people we met said they still could not sleep at night. For those still living in their homes, bullet holes in the walls or burned stores nearby are a constant reminder of the recent carnage. And for the thousands of refugees, there is also the uncertainty of the future: Where will they live? How will they provide for their families? How can they rebuild their lives?
Every Panamanian faces the continuing armed presence of U.S. troops, controlling, surveilling, deciding the minute details of daily existence. Violent upheaval has left the populace withdrawn, fearful and wary of the next change to be imposed upon them. These psychic damages may not be readily measurable, but they are as real as the ruins of El Chorrillo.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
GIVEN THE U.S. PRESS REPORTS of overwhelming Panamanian support for the invasion, our delegation was anxious to find out who, if anyone, opposed it. Although it proved impossible to collect statistical data on this question, we did find significant opposition.
The independent Panamanian human rights organizations we contacted were unanimously opposed to the U.S. military action. Representatives of those groups told us they considered the invasion a violation of human rights, including the fundamental right of life. We also saw evidence of opposition among public employees. Two hundred and fifty had demonstrated on January 9, and government workers held another demonstration during our stay. The workers had lost their jobs because their prior employment by the Noriega government rendered them suspect to the current regime, regardless of whether or not they were, in fact, Noriega supporters.
But while it is clear that many in Panama are opposed to the invasion--and that their numbers are growing--it must be added that most Panamanians appear to support U.S. intervention in their country at this time. The reasons, we discovered, are complicated.
ATTITUDES TOWARD INVASION
To understand Panamanian attitudes toward the invasion, one must look at the historical relationship between the United States and Panama--specifically, the pattern of exploitation and dependency that U.S. policy has fostered over the years (see "The History Behind the Invasion" on page XX). Panama's development has been so dominated by this country (its currency, for one pervasive example, is the U.S. dollar) that many Panamanians rely on the United States to make important decisions on their behalf. In this context, "support" for the invasion would more aptly be described as complaisance, the requisite response of a people whose economic, social and political future is controlled by the United States.
This is not to deny or belittle the existence of strong, nationalistic political values in Panama. As Raul Leis, coordinator of the Centro de Estudios y Accion Social de Panama, a non-governmental organization, told us: "In Panama there are nationalistic political values, but those values are identified with a healthy, romantic part of the country's history. Under Noriega, there was a decline of those political values. Nationalism was identified with Noriega and separated from democracy."
Paradoxically, it may be easiest to explain why some of the Panamanians most directly affected by the invasion--the refugees, most of whom were impoverished to begin with--generally express support for it. These people had suffered tremendously before the invasion, largely as a result of U.S. economic sanctions. Now they face even greater poverty, having lost homes, possessions and family members. Many live in camps established and effectively controlled by the U.S. military. Dependent on the United States for food and other basic necessities, the refugees have every incentive to flatter their benefactors (or their captors, depending on one's point of view). For example, when one Panamanian woman we met described the U.S. military action as an invasion, another woman promptly corrected her, saying, "No, no, it is an intervention!"
Other refugees not under U.S. military control told us they saw the invasion as a necessary sacrifice that would ensure democracy. But having paid a high price, they have equally high expectations. A refugee whose house was burned to the ground stated: "The [Endara] government must wait until the U.S. process is over, but this government must be democratic with guarantees we did not have before. They must give us a free press and they cannot fire people. I trust the United States' help is coming soon to rebuild El Chorrillo."
Of course, the role of the press and propaganda should not be ignored in any discussion of public opinion in Panama. "Operation Just Cause" tee shirts, hats, bumper stickers, and posters were being sold everywhere we went; some, we were told, had actually been dispensed on the night of the invasion. In all areas where refugees could be found, signs and posters of a pro-invasion propaganda campaign called "A Smile in Democracy" were very much in evidence.
What's more, the Panamanian press has studiously avoided covering such issues as the plight of the displaced, the discrepancies in the numbers of casualties, and the extent of damage to the economy. Even the term "intervention" is too strong for government newspapers; they consistently call the U.S. troops "allied forces," and refer to the invasion not as an act of war but as a "liberation."
LITTLE SUPPORT FOR ENDARA
Despite the influence of post-invasion propaganda, a stronger public reaction might have been expected when the United States, acting in the name of democracy, unilaterally deposed one government and installed a new one. It appears, however, that the reactions of some Panamanians were dulled by their belief that, in any case, the U.S.-installed Endara government had been duly elected last May.
While it seems that Endara was the winner in the May 1989 presidential elections, virtually all independent observers, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, concluded that the elections were replete with fraud. On one side, the Noriega military forces were reported to have confiscated ballots; on the other, the Endara opposition received at least $10 million from the CIA in an attempt to "buy" the vote.
It is also generally agreed that voters were casting their ballots against Noriega, not for Endara. Most of the people we met said they believed Endara had little if any genuine support. Even before the invasion, the composition of the Endara coalition was the result of uncomfortable compromises among opponents of the military dictatorship. Most were strongly anti-military but not strongly pro-Endara.
Endara's party represents the Panamanian oligarchy. It engenders scant loyalty from people not of that class. Since the oligarchy also controls the mass media, however, it has an impact on public opinion. The press is unwilling to criticize either Endara or the United States, and public opinion seems to be following that lead.
What seems to be public support for the current government may also be explained by widespread fear of a political "witch hunt" against suspected Noriega supporters. With the newspapers encouraging Panamanians to "denounce" their associates as criminals, even anonymous complaints are acted upon by the authorities. The mere allegation that an individual has arms or drugs in his or her possession is used to justify a full-scale, armed search. And as long as a criminal charge is pending, the subject of that charge is suspended from employment. This is an especially harsh measure in a country where government figures show about a third of the workforce is unemployed, and where the unofficial jobless rate in some poor neighborhoods soars to 70 percent.
At the same time, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has demanded that Panama reduce the number of public employees by 30,000 in order to qualify for economic assistance. Since the public employees' union had ties to Noriega, the IMF directive provides the new government with a further rationale for politically motivated firings.
Besides the possibility of job loss, suspected opponents of the current regime are subject to detention. Immediately after the invasion, thousands of people considered enemies of the new government were arrested and detained by U.S. troops. Most were released later, when the authorities determined that no charges were pending against them. But our delegation found that detentions and other abuses of Panamanian and international law are continuing (see "Violations of International Law" on page 13). Given the demonstrated penalties for dissent, it is not surprising that we heard so little of it voiced publicly. Still, the question remains: What will happen when the United States is no longer in Panama to help impose quiet?
WHO IS IN CONTROL?
Representatives of the legal office at SouthComm went to great lengths to convince our delegation that Panamanians are now in control of their country. Nevertheless, they had to admit that the U.S. military itself is still interpreting and enforcing Panamanian law. SouthComm sought to explain this exercise of authority by citing a letter, allegedly sent by Endara to George Bush, through which U.S. troops were, in effect, deputized to act on the Panamanian government's behalf. Our request to see a copy of the letter was denied. When we subsequently asked representatives of the new Panamanian attorney general about this letter, they professed no knowledge of its existence. The authority under which the U.S. troops were acting, we were told, was simply the "authority of fact."
We were able to ascertain that under this authority, the military continues to conduct searches without warrants or probable cause, and to detain Panamanians who are not charged with any crimes.
Meanwhile, the United States is also scrambling to establish the new government's "police force," renamed the Panamanian Public Forces (FPP). As the debate about whether the country needs a police force or a standing army goes on, SouthComm, which trained the Panamanian troops under the military regime, is now training the FPP. This new force, we discovered, is composed primarily of the same people--including high officials--who made up Noriega's PDF. We also learned that the U.S. military is supplying new uniforms to the FPP (khaki instead of the former olive green), as well as painting all police vehicles a new color and putting redesigned decals on them. Such cosmetic moves seem unlikely to dispel the FPP's image as a repressive force at the service of the government.
The clear impression we got from all this was that the United States has no intention of relinquishing its direct or indirect control in the near future. The SouthComm legal office told us that decisions about law enforcement are made jointly by the U.S. government and the Endara regime. SouthComm also acknowledged that the United States is very much involved in supervising the country's police force and its legal system. As far as the military is concerned, one officer told us, Panama is still a "war zone."
In other words, the U.S. occupation of Panama goes on. Despite reports that the "excess" troops have been sent home, more than 13,000 remain. No longer confined to the Canal Zone as they were before the invasion, the U.S. troops, armed with machine guns, now roam throughout the country.
THE POST-INVASION ERA
INDEED, PANAMANIAN SOCIETY in the post-invasion era is a virtual powder keg. The U.S. sanctions imposed in early 1988 had a devastating effect on the country's economy. Many people have been forced to survive on as little as fifty cents a day, while prices for many goods are comparable to what we pay in the United States. Recent offers by the Bush administration to provide $40 million in immediate aid will not compensate for the $600 million in Panamanian funds frozen or withheld by the U.S. government in the past two years.
Now, all signs seem to indicate that things will remain the same or get worse. Even Panamanians who supported the invasion--based in part on the hope that the economic situation would improve afterward--appear to have little faith that the Endara government will make significant changes. As one man put it, "The king is dead, long live the king, but for how long?"
Housing shortages and increased joblessness have combined to create the potential for even greater discontent. Already, factory owners are moving to reduce the minimum wage. The thousands still living in refugee camps have been told they may have to stay for a year or two before the new housing they have been promised is built. Still others are living in damaged building, with no utilities, or crowded in with friends and relatives. And precious little assistance is available for basic medical needs. We spoke to one father whose six-year-old daughter had lost an eye in the invasion. He said the authorities had told him that medical expenses were his problem, despite the fact that he had lost his means of livelihood and his home during the invasion.
The new government, emphasizing private economic development, is allowing private industry a free hand in rebuilding El Chorrillo--a course that is likely to result in delays and high costs. Meanwhile, competition for U.S. aid dollars is on the rise. Many people said they believed aid dollars would be used mainly to pay off Panamanian debts to international banks, not to compensate the people for their losses or to rebuild housing.
In the press, a dialogue about the need to maintain the U.S. military presence in Panama has commenced. The Bush administration is likely to take advantage of the seemingly favorable climate for such a presence, either by negotiating an agreement for a long-term occupation (such as the United States has in the Philippines) or by renegotiating the canal treaty. The latter plan would have the added advantage, from the U.S. viewpoint, of retaining some degree of control over the canal after the year 2000.
So far, it is clear that the United States has achieved the true goal of its invasion: to install an obedient government that will allow continued U.S. access to military bases in the area. Panama is strategically crucial to this country because of its geographic position, particularly its proximity to Nicaragua. In addition, magnetic conditions peculiar to Panama have caused it to become a center for U.S. military communications with all of Central and South America. A radio platform at Isla Galetas, off the Panamanian coast, holds the only transmitter enabling communications between nuclear submarines in the Pacific Ocean and those in the Atlantic.
Thus, U.S. strategic interests were served by the lack of popular support for Noriega, once it became clear that the Pentagon's former ally would have to be ousted. But as mentioned previously, there is not much support for Endara, either.
Whatever limited support Endara now enjoys will fade quickly if his government continues the repression described in this report--and unfortunately for the people of Panama, we believe the repression is likely to continue. Endara's support will decline even faster if he and his associates keep making economic decisions based solely on wealthy Panamanian and U.S. interests--yet this, too, seems almost certain to go on.
In August 1989, three months before the invasion, an assortment of Panamanian political organizations, including human rights groups, held an important first meeting. Their goal: to develop a movement framed in terms of national liberation. Although our delegation returned home convinced that revolutionary changes are not imminent in Panama, we do believe that such a popular movement will take root there in the years ahead. Continued international opposition to the U.S. occupation will be needed to nurture that movement's growth. For in the tragic wake of the U.S. invasion, national liberation may well be the only "just cause" in sight.
VIOLATIONS OF INTERNATIONAL LAW
AN IMPORTANT GOAL of the NLG delegation's mission to Panama involved examining the legal ramifications of the U.S. invasion. Based on first-hand observation and analysis, we determined that the invasion blatantly violated international law, and that U.S. military operations had disregarded fundamental norms of human rights. Moreover, we found that the justifications advanced by the Bush administration for the invasion are factually incorrect or based on gross distortions of international law, or both. Details of our conclusions follow.
The U.S. administration's assertion that the invasion was justified as a legitimate act of self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter distorts the charter's true meaning. Self-defense under Article 51 comes into effect only when a country is attacked or is about to be attacked by another country--not when one country's citizens require protection in another country. The need for self-defense must be "instant, overwhelming, leaving no means of, and no means for deliberation." The pre-invasion circumstances in Panama did not meet these criteria.
The killing of one U.S. soldier who drove past a Panamanian forces' checkpoint prior to the invasion, despicable though it was, did not rise to the level necessary to justify a full-scale invasion--particularly in view of the numerous other U.S. civilians previously killed in El Salvador and other "friendly" countries. The circumstances of this incident do not indicate that Panama intended an "armed attack" against the United States, as required by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter to justify the use of force in self-defense.
The operable provision of the U.N. Charter in this instance is actually Article 2(4), which prohibits the "use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state." This fundamental principle is also found in the Charter of the Organization of American States, which states clearly that "the territory of a state is inviolable; it may not be the object, even temporarily, of military occupation or of other measures of force taken by another state, directly or indirectly on any grounds whatsoever." The U.S. invasion of Panama violated these basic legal safeguards of sovereignty.
The Bush administration's assertions that the integrity of the Carter-Torrijos Panama Canal treaty was in jeopardy are untrue. In fact, the invasion itself violated the treaty, which specifically limits the role of U.S. military forces in Panama to the protection of the canal, and prohibits intervention in the country's internal affairs. As the treaty states: "Any U.S. action will be directed at insuring that the Canal will remain open, secure and accessible, and...shall never be directed against the territorial integrity or political independence of Panama."
No one in Washington has attempted to claim, under Article IV of the treaty, that the canal was in danger of "an armed attack or other actions threatening [its] security"--which might have justified armed action under the canal treaty. The overwhelming majority of Panamanians with whom our delegation spoke never believed the canal was under any such internal threat. The canal, they pointed out, is of great economic and political importance to virtually every Panamanian.
Under international law, the United States had no right to "bring Noriega to justice" in this country, notwithstanding the former leader's indictment on drug charges here. No government has the right to seize the national of a foreign country, on his native soil, without the consent of that country's government. The U.S. violation of international law in this instance is made even more egregious by the fact that the national to be seized was also the de facto head of state.
The notion that the invasion was necessary to restore democracy to Panama cannot be justified legally. International law does not permit the United States, or any other country, to forcibly install a government that it decides would have or should have won an election. Furthermore, elections tainted by the kind of pervasive fraud that was reported on all sides in Panama's May 1989 elections are normally deemed null and void, and anathema to any democratic process.
For its part, the Endara government has demonstrated no concern for establishing democratic institutions or upholding democratic principles. Instead, it has allowed U.S. and Panamanian troops to search homes and make arrests without warrants, and to detain persons without charges. The new government has also repealed labor laws protecting the rights of public and private employees; as a consequence, many employees have been summarily dismissed under the mere suspicion of having ties to the former government.
These actions indicate a disregard for both Panamanian and international law on the part of the U.S.-installed government. But even more alarming are the government-sponsored campaigns to have Panamanian citizens accuse other citizens of drug dealing, storing armaments or collaborating with Noriega. Such tactics have allowed the Endara government to consolidate its power and to silence opposition, in defiance of democratic principles. It has yet to be proven, therefore, that the U.S. invasion helped to install a democratic government in Panama.
STATE OF WAR
Despite the Bush administration's insistence to the contrary, the U.S. invasion was not a response to a declaration of war--because Panama never declared war on the United States. On December 15, 1989, the Panamanian Assembly passed a declaration that the country was "in a state of war" in order to grant extraordinary powers to the head of state. Nothing in the resolution expressed an intent to attack the United States or its citizens.
The statement that the country was "in a state of war" actually referred to the harsh sanctions that had been imposed on Panama by the U.S. government. These included, inter alia, suspending the import of Panamanian sugar, increasing troop maneuvers in and around Panama and prohibiting Panama-registered ships from docking at U.S. ports. The Assembly also interpreted U.S. participation in an unsuccessful October 1989 coup attempt against Noriega as creating circumstances tantamount to a "state of war."
It is ingenuous to declare, as the U.S. administration has done in its post-invasion statements, that the Panamanian government invited the United States into Panama. The new government there was sworn in at a U.S. military base less than an hour before the invasion began. Installing a government in order to be invited into the country by that government is intolerable under international law.
To make matters worse, U.S. troops in Panama have searched and seized vehicles and detained persons entering and leaving the embassies of Nicaragua, Cuba, Peru, and the Papal Nuncio. Such actions violate all international conventions intended to safeguard the security of embassies and their diplomatic staff, and to protect the rights of those who seek asylum.
"WAR ON DRUGS"
The "war on drugs" does not justify the illegal use of force, intervention, and violations of sovereignty and self-determination. In the invasion of Panama, the "war on drugs" provided a convenient pretext for the removal by force of a foreign head of state. This occurred after the Bush administration had determined that Noriega was no longer an ally in protecting U.S. economic, military and political interests in the Western Hemisphere.
If the United States were truly committed to combatting the drug problem, it would not have sustained Noriega on the CIA payroll for so many years, and would not have installed a new government that has close ties to the banks involved in drug-money laundering. President Guillermo Endara, Second Vice President Guillermo (Billy) Ford and the new Attorney General, Rogelio Cruz, have all been connected to corrupt banks known to be involved in the drug trade.
As detailed elsewhere in the NLG delegation's report, the U.S. invasion involved the use of excessive force with reckless disregard for civilian lives. Contrary to the official reports, attacks by the invasion forces were not limited to "surgical strikes" against military installations. Large residential areas were destroyed in the invasion and during the following days. Thousands of civilian residents were killed, wounded, rendered homeless, or disappeared in the attack, which was launched against their community with little or no notice to evacuate. This outcome constitutes a major U.S. violation of international principles protecting civilians in wartime.
At this writing, U.S. troops continue to patrol the streets of Panama as an occupying force. By their own account to our delegation, the military authorities at Southern Command control the system of justice and the process for establishing a new government, including the reorganization of Panama's police and judicial systems. On its face, the continuing U.S. occupation contravenes virtually every treaty and principle protecting sovereignty and self-determination under international law.
THE HISTORY BEHIND THE INVASION
THE GUILD DELEGATION'S report from Panama would not be complete without a review of the historical context in which the December 20, 1989, invasion occurred. Following is a brief look at the history behind this latest U.S. military intervention.
STRUGGLE FOR SOVEREIGNTY
Actually, the struggle for Panamanian sovereignty dates back to the Spanish colonization of America. As early as 1503, El Quibio, the Guaymi chief of Veraguas province, fought conquistadors who had refused his peaceful request that they abandon the Belen River area.
After finally obtaining its independence from Spain more than three hundred years later, in 1821, Panama joined Colombia in fulfillment of the dream of Latin American federalism. That dream was not to last, however. Within 20 years, Panamanians were again engaged in a fight for independence. The struggle against Colombia would last for more than sixty years.
Meanwhile, the United States and Colombia signed an agreement--under terms of the Treaty of 1846--guaranteeing a U.S. right of way for an inter-oceanic canal through the Isthmus of Panama. But for its own strategic reasons, the United States supported the Panamanian independence movement. On November 3, 1903, separation from Colombia was ensured by the presence of U.S. gunboats. Panama was reborn as a nation, but remained saddled by a legacy of dependence and deceit.
Fifteen days after independence, the United States signed the Hay-Bunau Varilla treaty, an agreement to develop the Panama Canal. The treaty granted Panama a payment of $10 million and a $250,000 annuity. In exchange, the United States obtained the right to build the canal, along with full sovereignty over a ten-mile-wide corridor known as the Panama Canal Zone. Under the treaty, the canal could be protected by the United States through military intervention whenever the U.S. government deemed Panama unable to accomplish the task. The United States did not have the right to free military transit through the rest of Panama's territory, but U.S. rights to rental of the canal were granted in perpetuity.
Panama thus paid for its independence with land and considerable blood sacrifice. Hospitals of the era document 5,609 Panamanian deaths as a result of accidents or illness during construction of the canal. The great majority were people of color. Unaccounted for, of course, were the deaths of hundreds of women and children living in the crowded barrios of Panama City and Colon, who came to work as servants or were drawn to Panama with promises of work in the canal area.
INFLUX OF WORKERS
The influx of workers from all over the world determined the character of Panamanian national identity. The mixing of races had been common since Spanish times, and the elimination of slavery early in the history of the republic made race a secondary issue to class. But in the Canal Zone, imported U.S. policies created a racist caste system of privileges and earning power. Such policies fostered development of an oligarchy that remains evident to this day.
U.S. attempts to erode Panama's sovereignty continued in the ensuing decades. During World War II, the United States signed a covenant with Panama to construct roads and other installations for military defense. After the war, there was a concerted but unsuccessful U.S. effort to maintain control of the installations, which were located throughout the country. The United States subsequently dismantled its bases and rebuilt them within the Canal Zone, without the legal authorization of the Panamanian government.
The U.S. flag continued to fly unchallenged in the Canal Zone until January 9, 1964, when a group of Panamanian students attempted to implement a stated U.S. policy allowing the Panamanian flag to be raised there as well. Armed with the national banner and signs saying "Panama is sovereign," the students were met--and clubbed--by hostile U.S. citizens and military police.
In response to this incident, the Panamanian people took to the streets. The U.S. army, in turn, occupied the cities of Panama and Colon. After three days of riots, 22 Panamanians had died and five hundred were injured. President Roberto F. Chiari broke U.S.-Panamanian diplomatic relations, but they were re-established the following year by a new President, Marcos Robles.
In May 1968, Arnulfo Arias--a populist who had held office during the 1940's and '50s--was once again elected to the presidency, defeating Marcos Robles. But shortly after taking office, Arias was overthrown by Col. Omar Torrijos Herrera, an officer of the country's powerful National Guard, in a U.S.-supported coup.
The United States quickly recognized Torrijos as leader of the new government, and he consolidated his power by systematically arresting, imprisoning and assassinating opponents. Journalists, intellectuals, union workers, and popular movement leaders vanished. The National University was closed, the Constitution was suspended and all political parties were banned.
While cultivating an international image of non-alignment and nationalism, the Torrijos regime received massive U.S. economic support. It was in this period that the U.S. Southern Command first began training Panamanian troops in counter insurgency, psychological operations and other repressive techniques. Systematic joint maneuvers between both armies for the "defense of the canal" and "national security" purposes also began at this time. Manuel Noriega, once labeled by Torrijos as his "gangster," was placed in charge of the secret police.
In 1970, a new banking law permitted the expansion of the financial center in Panama without restrictions--making the nation a fertile ground for money laundering and other illegal operations. A new Constitution, enacted in 1972, forbade Panama to print its own currency. The document also granted Torrijos extraordinary new powers, converting the military into a fourth and superseding branch of government.
By this time, Panama's economy was in a shambles. Rumors of government drug smuggling and human rights abuses were rampant, but U.S. support for Torrijos continued. Mass demonstrations against the regime were violently suppressed by Noriega, who reportedly wore a CIA insignia on his lapel.
NEW CANAL TREATY
On September 7, 1977--following several years of negotiations marked by the suppression of internal Panamanian dissent--Torrijos and U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed a new Panama Canal treaty at an elaborate ceremony in Washington, DC. Six weeks later (after a campaign during which treaty opponents remained in exile and full press censorship was in effect) the treaty was approved in a national referendum in Panama. In April 1978, it was ratified by the U.S. Senate.
Once ratified, the Torrijos-Carter treaty granted a permanent U.S. right to defend the neutrality of the canal from any threats, as perceived by the United States. It also gave this country the right to station, train and transport military troops in Panama. Finally, the treaty allowed the free transit of U.S. government vehicles and equipment throughout the national territory of Panama, and the right of U.S. warships to transit the canal in an expeditious manner. In return for guarantees of neutrality, the treaty said the canal would belong to Panama after the year 2000.
In 1981, following several more years of internal political struggle, Torrijos was killed in a plane crash. Many observers suspected CIA intervention in the crash, possibly through the cooperation of Manuel Noriega, who came to power as Commander in Chief of the National Guard two years later.
Under Noriega's direction--and with the help of U.S. military advisers--the guard was transformed into the Fuerzas de Defensa Panamena (PDF). With this power base established, Noriega formed a political party, the PRD, to run candidates in the 1984 national elections. Nicolas Ardito Barletta, the PRD presidential candidate, went on to be declared the winner in an election process widely viewed as fraudulent. Nevertheless, the United States promptly recognized Barletta's victory, sending Secretary of State George Shultz to his inauguration.
In 1985, Hugo Spadafora, a former Torrijos supporter and contra fighter in Nicaragua, accused the Noriega regime of drug trafficking. Shortly thereafter, Spadafora was captured, tortured and killed, allegedly by Noriega's paramilitary group, F-8. President Barletta ordered an investigation of Spadafora's death, but subsequently resigned under pressure, to be replaced by his Vice President, Eric Arturo Del Valle. In its first public move against CIA employee Noriega, the United States protested Barletta's forced resignation.
In the wake of revelations concerning Spadafora's assassination, public demonstrations were violently repressed by the military regime. On June 10, 1987, President Del Valle declared a State of Emergency. The United States then officially announced the suspension of economic and military assistance to Panama, but joint military maneuvers continued until January 1988.
In February 1988, Noriega was indicted in the U.S. courts for drug trafficking, and President Del Valle dismissed him by order of the United States. In turn, Noriega ordered the National Assembly to dismiss Del Valle. Manuel Solis Palma, former Minister of Education, was appointed in his place. Del Valle took in refuge in Miami and was recognized by the United States as President of Panama. In March, U.S. economic sanctions were imposed; Panamanian funds in U.S. banks were frozen and placed at the disposal of Del Valle. Noriega put down a coup attempt, and protests continued to paralyze Panama.
More than a year of increasing economic and political pressure led up to national elections on May 7, 1989. After an apparent victory by the opposition parties, Noriega annulled the election results, citing $10 million in U.S. aid to the opposition as interference in the electoral process. On May 11, additional U.S. troops were sent to Panama.
Tensions heightened in the following months. On December 15, the Panama General Assembly passed a resolution stating that U.S. sanctions and other recent developments had created a "state of war" with the United States. Noriega, declared leader of the "struggle for liberation," was granted broader powers by the Assembly.
The next day, December 16, an American soldier was killed at a roadblock set up by the PDF, capping a series of mutual provocations between the U.S. and Panamanian armies. Two days later, a U.S. soldier shot and wounded a Panamanian traffic officer.
Finally, on December 19, Guillermo Endara and Ricardo Arias Calderon, the declared winners of the May elections, were invited to the U.S. embassy in Panama and informed that the country would be invaded. Noriega was also notified, by unidentified sources, of the imminent invasion. At midnight on December 20, "Operation Just Cause" began. That same day, the Endara opposition, sworn in at a U.S. military base, took nominal control of the government of the Republic of Panama.
Source: PeaceNet - cdp:carnet.panama
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