August 18, 2000


Credit Globalization - Ruling That Pinochet Must Stand Trial Marks New Era In Human Rights

By Roger Burbach

The Chilean Supreme Court's decision, stripping Augusto Pinochet of immunity, reflects a sea of change in the treatment of former dictators around the world.

As the Chilean justices were voting 14 to 6 to allow the indictment of Pinochet for human rights violations, Indonesia's former dictator Suharto was indicted for corruption while Haiti's former military rulers are about to be tried for torture and murder.

Such actions were unknown in October 1998 when Scotland Yard detained Pinochet in London in response to an extradition request from Spain. That request came from a judge in response to Chilean exiles and Spanish citizens whose relatives had been tortured and assassinated in Chile under Pinochet.

Before he abandoned power in 1990, Pinochet had issued an amnesty decree and imposed a constitution that limited the courts' ability to prosecute military officers — including Pinochet himself as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

However, Pinochet's detention in London opened a new chapter in international law.

In England, Pinochet's lawyers initially argued that he enjoyed diplomatic immunity and, as a former head of state, was exempt from prosecution in a foreign country. An opposing team, which included Amnesty International representatives, argued that Pinochet had violated international precedents and laws.

In March 1999 a ruling that Pinochet could be extradited to Spain was greeted with widespread public support — polls in Chile and England showed that between 60 to 80 percent believed Pinochet should stand trial. However, the Chilean government called for Pinochet's release on the grounds that his arrest violated "national sovereignty."

Chilean diplomats — ironically headed by a man once exiled by Pinochet as a Socialist militant — worked to free Pinochet. Worried that a trial in Spain would cut into burgeoning Spanish investments in Chile, they pressured the Spanish courts to abandon the case, but eventually, the Spanish judges of the National Court blocked these deals.

In Britain, the Chilean diplomats finally got what they wanted when, in early March, Home Secretary Jack Straw at first failed to win Pinochet's release. Then in early March of this year, Straw (who had participated in demonstrations against Pinochet's military coup in 1973) ruled that Pinochet be released for health reasons.

Once back in Chile, the general's ailments disappeared. Disembarking from the military plane sent to fetch him, he rejected a wheelchair and walked across the tarmac, waving his crutch in the air.

But the situation in Chile had changed dramatically during the general's 16-month absence.

For one thing, Chileans had elected a new Socialist president, Ricardo Lagos, who took office a week after Pinochet's return. Even more importantly, Pinochet's arrest in London had unleashed a torrent of memories among Chileans. During his absence, human rights groups and a few judges had moved against high-ranking officers.

Chilean courts found that the amnesty did not apply to the cases of over a thousand "disappeared" — victims whose bodies were never found — on the grounds that these were ongoing, crimes not yet resolved.

Finally, human rights lawyers opted to challenge Pinochet's special immunity from prosecution with the case of the infamous "Caravan of Death" — a special military expedition that traveled around the country and carried out at least 72 summary executions shortly after Pinochet took power.

This led to the latest ruling lifting Pinochet's immunity.

This is not the last repercussion of Pinochet's detention in London. Belgium, France and Switzerland have all filed charges against him, and the US Department of Justice is also involved in relation to the 1975 Washington, D.C., assassination of an exiled Chilean official and his aide.

All these efforts have put dictators and military officers on notice that they too can be charged for crimes against humanity.

In Spain, Argentine generals have been charged with crimes related to more than 10,000 executions or disappearances.

In Argentina itself, amnesty laws exempted the military from prosecution for most human rights violations, but baby-trafficking — a practice military officials engaged in with the children of parents who were assassinated or disappeared — was not included. Now, nine high-ranking military officers, including Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri who was president of the military junta in 1981-82, have been jailed on this charge.

Efrain Rios Montt, Guatemala's leader in the early 1980s, does not travel abroad for fear of being arrested.

Even Henry Kissinger has reportedly curtailed his international travel for fear of being prosecuted for his actions.

Similar fears may explain the US government's refusal to sign the treaty establishing an International Criminal Court now being set up in Rome to try human rights violators and war criminals.

In a certain sense, this is the product of globalization, which until now has been largely limited to fostering corporate investments. For the first time, families of victims of repression, along with a growing number of judges, feel they can use international and national laws to prosecute former rulers for their crimes against humanity.

Roger Burbach is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas and author of "Globalization and Postmodern Politics: From Zapatistas to Hightech Robber Barons" (Pluto Press).

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