Global Policy Forum

Pinochet: Justice and the General


By Reed Brody *

International Herald Tribune
December 11, 2006

General Augusto Pinochet died without standing trial. But justice caught up with him in every other sense. Indeed, the "Pinochet precedent" has made the world a smaller place for the perpetrators of the worst atrocities.

For years after Pinochet had relinquished absolute power, he still cast a long shadow over Chile. Despite the desires of a majority of Chileans, he was shielded from prosecution for thousands of killings and "disappearances," by parliamentary immunity and an amnesty that the military had granted itself. All that changed when Pinochet was arrested in London on Oct. 16, 1998, pursuant to a warrant issued by Spanish judge, Balthasar Garzón. Seventeen months of humbling detention, including two rulings by the House of Lords that Pinochet could not claim immunity, renewed debate in Chile about the legacy of the military government and rekindled hopes of justice for Pinochet's victims.

As previously timid Chilean judges found chinks in the dictator's legal armor, the number of criminal cases against him jumped to hundreds. By the time Britain sent Pinochet back to Chile, ostensibly on health grounds, the myth of his immunity had been shattered. For the last years of his life, Pinochet was dogged by his past. His immunity was stripped in six major cases, ranging from death squads and abductions to the hiding of millions of dollars abroad, and at the time of his death, he was under house arrest. One hundred and nine other agents of his regime have now been convicted of human rights crimes.

The Pinochet case inspired victims of abuse in country after country, particularly in Latin America, to challenge the transitional arrangements of the 1980s and 1990s that had allowed the perpetrators of atrocities to go unpunished and, often, to remain in power. Argentina's Supreme Court last year struck down immunity laws for former officials, and dozens now face investigation and trial for crimes during Argentina's 1976-1983 dictatorship.

Pinochet's London arrest also reflected, and strengthened, a new international movement — spurred by the killings in Bosnia and Rwanda, and facilitated by the end of the Cold War — to end impunity for the worst abuses. After the creation of UN tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the UN established the International Criminal Court to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and serious war crimes when national courts are unable or unwilling to do so.

Even in Africa, whose people have long been victims of cycles of atrocity and impunity, international justice is on the march. The July summit meeting of the African Union, an assembly comprising such notable despots as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, called on Senegal to prosecute, "on behalf of Africa," one of their old colleagues, the former dictator of Chad, Hissí¨ne Habré, known as the "African Pinochet." Earlier this year, Charles Taylor of Liberia, was handed over for trial for war crimes to the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone by the president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo. The International Criminal Court is now investigating alleged crimes in Darfur, Uganda and Congo.

We have come a long way from the days when leaders could act as they wished, secure in the knowledge that they would never be brought to book. The final frontier has yet to be breached, however. Until now, Western leaders have seemed immune from international justice, leading many rightly to protest about double standards. The most important test case now under way is a complaint filed last month in Germany against Donald Rumsfeld and other U.S. policy makers for alleged war crimes at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. Rumsfeld's role in approving the use of illegal interrogation techniques such as "waterboarding" and the terrorizing of detainees with guard dogs is no longer in doubt.

An earlier version of the case was dismissed by a German prosecutor in February 2005, after U.S. pressure, on the ground that the United States was adequately investigating the acts at issue. But with all ranking U.S. officials involved in detainee mistreatment have gotten off scot free, that claim can no longer withstand scrutiny. Germany's handling of the Rumsfeld case will tell us whether the "Pinochet precedent" applies to the leaders of powerful nations as well as weak ones.

About the Author: Reed Brody is counsel for Human Rights Watch. He participated in the Pinochet case in London and is lead counsel for the victims of Hissí¨ne Habré.

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