July 11, 2003

‘Superjudge’ Strikes Again — With Global Implications

By Walter Truett Anderson

Unlike the case of former Chilean ruler Augusto Pinochet, a Mexican court’s recent decision to send an accused Argentine war criminal to Spain to face charges of genocide, terrorism and torture is not getting global media coverage.

But it should.

The case of Ricardo Miguel Cavallo has enormous implications. It signifies an important forward step in the movement — not at all attractive to the current U.S. government — toward a world in which war criminals have no place to hide.

Cavallo is a former Argentine navy captain accused of several murders, 108 abductions and 227 forced disappearances during his country’s infamous “dirty war.” Once a reputed head of a notorious torture center in Argentina, Cavallo was living as a prosperous businessman in Mexico until he came under suspicion of being involved in an illegal used-car importations racket. After the Mexican newspaper Reforma revealed his identity, Cavallo was arrested at the airport in Cancun as he was attempting to return to Argentina. Spanish authorities promptly stepped in and requested his extradition to Spain.

Watchers of the developments along the international human-rights front are not surprised. The man behind this coup is Spain’s famous and flamboyant judge Baltasar Garzon — the same judge who attempted to prosecute Pinochet in Spanish courts — known in his own country as “superjuez,” or superjudge.

Garzon, as one of the six members of Spain’s National Court, does not try cases in court like an American judge. He is, rather, a sort of high-level investigator, whose job is to gather evidence and determine whether a case should come to trial. In this role he has considerable power — and wields it with great gusto.

Garzon led an investigation of his own Spanish govern-ment’s secret war against leaders of the Basque terrorist organization ETA, which ultimately resulted in the conviction of top officials and contributed to the collapse of the government of Felipe Gonzales. Then, just to show his impartiality, he went after ETA. He has also attempted to interrogate former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in connection with Operation Condor, an arrangement in which leaders of several South American dictatorial regimes co-operated in their activities — including assassination — against political opponents at home and abroad.

Garzon, now in his early 40s, is said to be a competent bullfighter in his spare time, as well as an excellent soccer player and a black belt in karate. Often accused of being a publicity-hunter, he is also generally regarded, even by his detractors, as industrious, impartial and totally dedicated to the vision of a global world order in which national boundaries fade and courts anywhere try defendants from anywhere else on charges having to do with the now-sizeable body of international human rights law. Those laws are based on human rights treaties signed by almost all of the world’s nations.

Although the Carvallo case is still on the back pages, it will undoubtedly become a major focus of world attention if it comes to trial. It is not every day that two sovereign governments — in this case Mexico and Spain — work together to bring a war criminal from a third country to justice. Furthermore, it signifies that an international system of human rights law is emerging in the world, whether the U.S. government likes it or not.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is just opening for business in The Hague, but not with U.S. blessings. The Bush administration, afraid that Americans might be subjected to politically motivated prosecutions, has withdrawn U.S. signature from the treaty that created it. In fact, Washington is currently doing everything possible to weaken the ICC’s jurisdiction by pressuring member states into signing agreements stating they will refuse to surrender any U.S. citizens or service personnel to the ICC. Military aid is being cut off to countries that refuse to sign such agreements.

Earlier, the administration sought a U.N. resolution that would make all peacekeeping forces immune to arrest, detention or prosecution for actions arising out of their operations.

But in recent decades the United States has also been a signatory to most of the major human rights covenants agreed to by the world’s governments. And it does not appear to be able to prevent sovereign states from enforcing these treaties. The actions of “superjudge” reveal that, although the U.S. is the world’s sole superpower, the world is also highly multi-centric. The future of global order and justice is being shaped by many players.

Walter Truett Anderson (waltt@ well.com) is a political scientist and author of “All Connected Now: Life in the First Global Civilization” (Westview Press, 2001), which will be issued in a new paperback edition later this summer.

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