Defending David Against the World’s Goliaths in International Court


“I consider the Reagan administration to be an anomaly in terms of respect for international law. The United States does have a history of complying with the judgments of the International Court of Justice.” PAUL S. REICHLER Credit Mary F. Calvert for The New York Times
BEIJING — Paul S. Reichler’s first big break came in the late 1970s, when, not long out of Harvard Law School, he was a litigation associate at a blue-chip Washington law firm. The Sandinistas had just come to power in Nicaragua, and the partners did not mind putting an idealistic young lawyer to work full time to recover national assets spirited away by the Somoza dictatorship.

But then Ronald Reagan won the White House, turning Central America policy upside down. Some of the senior partners in the law firm were joining the new administration, which had already made ousting the Sandinistas a major foreign policy goal. Mr. Reichler soon faced a choice: dump the Sandinistas or leave the law firm.

He stuck with the Nicaraguans, and in 1986 won a landmark case for them in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The defendant was his own country, the United States, which was ordered to stop mining the ports of Nicaragua. The Reagan White House, which had refused to sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, ignored the ruling, confident it could withstand charges of violating international law.

Mr. Reichler, 68, is now a senior partner with Foley Hoag, with a corner office in the high-rent quarter of Washington he left 30 years ago. Of late, though, he had been back in The Hague, where, in the culmination of a three-year case, he won a sweeping victory this week for the Philippines, when an international tribunal swept away almost all of China’s claims in the South China Sea.