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  • Pollwatching and Peacemaking
  • Jennifer McCoy (bio), Larry Garber (bio), and Robert Pastor (bio)

Even before the Gulf War rekindled hopes that the United Nations could enforce the elusive principle of collective security, sovereign states had begun to request another form of security assistance from the international community-help in resolving internal conflicts and guaranteeing processes of democratization. International organizations like the UN and the Organization of American States (OAS) were designed primarily to keep the peace among states, not to resolve civil wars, even those involving external intervention. Similarly, such domestic affairs as designing the rules of the political game and conducting elections have been considered to lie outside the purview of international organizations.

The Nicaraguan elections of February 1990, however, challenged traditional concepts of sovereignty and introduced an unprecedented role for international actors in the internal affairs of that troubled country. Since then, the model developed in Nicaragua has been used in Haiti; modified for use in Suriname, Guyana, and El Salvador; and proposed as a means for resolving civil conflicts in Africa and Asia.

The model consists of an old formula, free elections, applied in a radically new manner. In Nicaragua, groups of international observers helped both to negotiate the rules of the electoral "game" and to implement a collectively guaranteed democratization process arising from a regional peace plan. The outcome was the world's first peaceful transfer of power from a revolutionary government to its opposition, and the first election in Nicaraguan history in which all major parties [End Page 102] competed and accepted the results. The principal actors both inside and outside Nicaragua were satisfied that the process had worked. The defeated Sandinistas, while obviously unhappy with the results, recognized that their long-term interests and those of Nicaragua were better served by respecting the vote than by defiantly holding onto power. The Nicaraguan experience, as well as other recent cases where international election monitors have been present, suggests the usefulness of this model in resolving the world's most intractable conflicts.

Historically, most Latin American governments have advocated respect for the principle of "nonintervention"-a principle that obviously favors incumbent governments. No principle has been more frustrating to an expansive power and more sacred to a weak nation. Latin America enshrined the principle in Article 15 of the OAS Charter: "No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State. The foregoing principle prohibits not only armed force but also any other form of interference." Yet as Venezuelan president Carlos Andrés Pérez told the OAS on 27 April 1990, the nonintervention solution had become part of the problem by "allowing the protection of dictatorships like those of Somoza, Stroessner, Duvalier, and Trujillo . . . . Nonintervention became a passive intervention against democracy."

Frustrated by the protracted internal wars that were ravaging their region, the five Central American presidents devised a way through this problem at Esquipulas, Guatemala, in 1987. There they approved a plan to end the conflict in the region by undertaking a collectively guaranteed process of national reconciliation and democratization. That plan represented a conceptual breakthrough in international relations, slicing through the cord connecting internal strife and external intervention by dealing with both dimensions of the conflict at the same time. It laid the basis for the ultimate resolution of the Nicaraguan conflict.

The 1990 Nicaraguan elections illustrate how outside actors-the other Central American governments and the international election observers-can serve as collective guarantors helping to promote national reconciliation and democratization. In this case, a massive observer presence by two intergovernmental organizations-the UN and the OAS-combined with the active participation of the Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government (the Council), a distinguished group of current and former Western Hemispheric leaders chaired by former president Jimmy Carter, contributed significantly to the success of the voting.

The worldwide upsurge of democracy and the reduction of tension between the superpowers offer an unprecedented opportunity for outside actors to help domestic groups negotiate and accept new political rules of the game that, in turn, could permit peaceful change and the resolution of longstanding conflicts. The...