September 22, 2000


U.S. Keeps Odd Company As International Prosecution of Human Rights Violators Gains Ground

By Andrew Reding

A human rights revolution is under way, and the United States is on the sidelines. As Europe takes the lead in promoting international enforcement of human rights, Washington is joining Cuba, China, Libya, and Iraq in a futile and ultimately counterproductive effort to hold back the tide.

The battlefield for this revolution is international law, where universal human rights are beginning to take precedence over national sovereignty.

It began two years ago, when Britain honored a Spanish judge's request to arrest former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet for crimes against humanity. Britain's highest court, the Law Lords, set an international precedent by ruling that Pinochet could be tried in a court not in Chile for violations of international human rights treaties ratified by Chile.

Pinochet was eventually released because of poor health, but the Chilean Supreme Court has since stripped him of immunity from prosecution — an action unthinkable before Pinochet's arrest in London.

Two new cases, like the Pinochet case, involve an international triangle pointed at the southern cone of South America. Argentina, Chile's neighbor, is beginning to confront its past, when its military government tortured and murdered thousands of civilians during the 1970s but those who committed atrocities have been protected by amnesty.

On August 7, Italian authorities arrested Jorge Olivera, a retired Argentinean major, at the request of a French judge who wants to try the former officer for the 1976 kidnapping, torture and disappearance of a 24-year-old French woman.

Just two weeks later, on August 24, Mexican authorities detained Miguel Angel Cavallo, a retired Argentinean naval captain, at the request of the Spanish judge who originally sought the arrest of Gen. Pinochet. Cavallo had been running Mexico's national motor vehicle registration bureaus.

During the 1970s, Cavallo had allegedly been among the officers in charge of a torture center through which more than 5,000 kidnapped civilians passed, almost all on their way to their deaths.

Unlike Chile, which vigorously protested Pinochet's detention as a violation of national sovereignty, Argentina is only offering routine consular assistance to the two detained officers.

In effect, Argentina is acknowledging the revolution in international law. So is the new president of Chile, Ricardo Lagos, who recently said that "Pinochet's long detention in London has shown that globalization has now expanded from economic affairs to the institutions of politics and justice."

One would hardly know that from the goings-on in Washington, where both Democrats and Republicans are clinging hard to the old order. They claim to fear that U.S. citizens may eventually be tried abroad for crimes against humanity. But given the fact that U.S. courts offer effective due process against such crimes, unlike many of the court systems in Latin America, it is unlikely that plaintiffs will be able to gain standing in foreign or international courts. International human rights treaties only allow recourse to such courts in the absence of domestic remedies.

Even Mexico, long a die-hard defender of national sovereignty, is among well over 100 countries (including Canada) that have agreed to the formation of an international criminal court to address such cases. The United States is among only seven holdouts, with China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar, and Yemen.

Regrettably, this not new. The U.S. has yet to ratify many of the most important international human rights treaties, including, for instance, the American Convention on Human Rights, which has been ratified by every Latin American country except Cuba.

That means that, for all its rhetoric about international human rights, The United States is in league with Cuba, China, Iraq, and Libya when it comes to stopping the move toward making such rights enforceable across borders.

There is no way the U.S. attitude can prevail. As the Pinochet, Olivera, and Cava-llo cases demonstrate, international human rights law is gaining teeth with or without U.S. approval. Washington can recognize the inevitability of the process and retrieve its credibility by joining in, or watch as Western Europe takes over as the torchbearer of human rights.

Andrew Reding is a fellow of the World Policy Institute, specializes in Latin American politics.

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