Here we move to a more obscure event.  I venture to say that very few people know that Panama was once part of Colombia, or how America's desire for a canal gave rise to Panama's independence.

Even though international law had not reached the heights it occupies today, the breach of a treaty was still a serious affront to pacta sunt servanda, or the norm that treaties must be carried out.  Despite the fact that the U.S. had a long-standing treaty with Colombia to maintain the neutrality of the isthmus of Panama, the following Teddy Roosevelt episode demonstrates how his assertive brand of the Monroe Doctrine superseded such niceties.

During the Spanish-American war, wherein Teddy earned much of his fame, the U.S. battleship Oregon had to round the tip of South America in order to make it from the Pacific to Cuba.  America learned that a waterway that would connect the Atlantic and the Pacific would greatly enhance its naval power.  Once Teddy became president following the (in)fortuitous assassination of William McKinley, he settled on the isthmus of Panama as the best location for the canal.  The only problem was that Colombia owned the isthmus.  Colombia at first seemed willing to negotiate, and it allowed a lease of a 6-mile wide strip of land through the isthmus in exchange for a handsome price.  Colombia's Senate, however, unanimously rejected the treaty.  Of course this would not do.  Roosevelt, anxious to win the fast-approaching election of 1904,  went into a tizzy.  "Damn the law, I want the canal built!" he yelled.  He did not attempt to negotiate further with Colombia, or perhaps to look to an alternate route (Nicaragua had often been considered); rather, it was time to support an insurgency.  Philippe Bunau-Varilla, the engineer who stood much to lose if Panama ceased to be available as a canal site, had raised a Panamanian army consisting of firemen and mercenaries.  This group started a revolution on November 3, 1903.  When Colombian troops moved to quash the insurgency, as was their sovereign right, U.S. gunships thwarted their advance.  After recognizing Panama as an independent nation, Roosevelt easily negotiated with them for the canal zone.  Two years after the unrepentant and boisterous Roosevelt died, the U.S. Senate paid $25 million to Colombia without apology.[1]

Panama would serve as a stage for yet another violation of international law in 1989, when the Bush administration invaded it, detained its head of state (Noriega), and tried him in a U.S. court for violating U.S. laws.  The concept of placing heads of state on trial is extremely limited in international law, and occurs only when they have violated the laws of war (under the so-called Nuremburg Principles).  If Noriega had violated international law in this fashion, any country would be able to try him.  But it is quite novel to propose that America's domestic laws establish worldwide criminal jurisdiction capable of piercing sovereign immunity.

This was also a clear violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which prohibits the aggressive use of force.  It was aggressive because it was not in self-defense, nor was it authorized by the Security Council.  Article 5 of General Assembly Resolution 3314 clearly states that nations may not initiate force for merely economic or political reasons, no matter how compelling.  Strangely, the U.S. has treated the British abduction of Chilean strongman Pinochet lukewarmly.  That is a case of a former head of state, who has been charged with true violations of humanitarian principles, factors that make prosecution look much more justifiable.  As we shall see in the next segment, this paradoxical U.S. behavior makes sense because Pinochet, unlike Noriega, served our interests.

CIA Factbook on Panama

  A good, concise history of the Panama Canal by

A brief history of Manuel Noriega and his trial, as reported in the New York Times (with bibliography)

Collection of photos of the Panama Canal

For a liberal view of U.S. policy in Panama, visit Foreign Policy In Focus

A conservative take on Panama policy, focusing on military bases (Heritage Foundation)