Global Policy Forum

Rights Chile: Ten Years of the 'Pinochet Effect'


By Daniela Estrada

Inter Press Service
October 9, 2008

The arrest of Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) a decade ago in London set the justice system in motion in Chile and in other countries in the world, stimulated the attempt to get at the truth about atrocities, and sent out a strong message to a number of notorious human rights violators.

These were some of the conclusions of the International Conference on "The Pinochet Effect: Ten Years After London 1998," which opened Wednesday in the private Diego Portales University in Chile. On Oct. 16, 1998, as he was recovering from surgery for a slipped disc at a London clinic, Pinochet was arrested by the British police acting on an arrest warrant issued by Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón, who was seeking his extradition to Spain with the aim of bringing him to trial for crimes against humanity.

On Sept. 11, 1973, Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of President Salvador Allende (1970-1973) in a brutal coup, and imposed a dictatorship that lasted 17 years. An estimated 3,000 leftist dissidents were murdered and disappeared during that period, and at least 35,000 others were tortured. Democracy was reinstated in 1990, ushered in by the centre-left Coalition of Parties for Democracy, which is currently still in power, headed by socialist President Michelle Bachelet. After 503 days under house arrest in London, the then life-senator was allowed to return to Chile when the British Home Secretary of the time, Jack Straw, accepted the Chilean government's request to release him for "humanitarian reasons," taking into consideration his advanced age and health problems. Pinochet died in December 2006 before he could be convicted of any of the numerous human rights and corruption charges he was facing.

One of the speakers at the conference, which ends Friday, the renowned Chilean human rights lawyer Roberto Garretón, posited that the former dictator's arrest in London had two effects: one which he termed "the Pinochet effect," and the other, "the Garzón effect." The Pinochet effect sends a message to dictators and human rights violators around the world, telling them that "they better not move from where they stand" lest they risk trial in other parts of the world, thanks to progress in the field of international law, he observed. The "Garzón effect," for its part, applies to judges and the military. "Chilean judges realised, as did those from many parts of the world, that justice was possible," said Garretón. Moreover, the Chilean military acknowledged that the human rights violations committed over the 17 years of the Pinochet regime "had to be censured and could not be allowed to happen again," he said. "Without Garzón, that acknowledgement would have never been possible," Garretón added.

A dialogue opened up in Chile and a commission was set up to document cases of torture. Judges were also appointed to dedicate themselves exclusively to these cases. "In political terms, Pinochet's arrest set the justice system in motion, promoting a process for the recovery of memory and compensation for the victims, which had been at a standstill in Chile," political scientist Claudio Fuentes, former director of the Latin American School of Social Sciences (Flacso) in Chile, told IPS. Former Peruvian president Alberto "Fujimori (1990-2000) failed to understand the 'Pinochet effect' and confidently left Japan (for Chile, where he was later extradited to Peru). And as the 'Garzón effect' operates in Peru, the judges there have brought him to trial" for crimes committed during his administration, Garretón told IPS.

However, the lawyer believes that the "Garzón effect" did not extend to "Chile's political establishment," as part of the rightwing opposition still defends the former military officers prosecuted for human rights abuses, and dictatorial constraints persist in the country, mainly in terms of political participation. Garretón drew attention to the fact that Chile has yet to ratify key international instruments such as the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons, the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

The "Garzón effect" may also have touched countries like Argentina, Peru, Paraguay, and Uruguay in different ways, Garretón said. In 2006, Uruguay, for example, approved the extradition to Chile of three Uruguayan military officers involved in the 1993 kidnapping and murder of chemist Eugenio Berrí­os, who had worked for the Pinochet dictatorship's secret police. Moreover, "Pinochet's arrest had a significant effect on judges in Argentina, who were already being pressured by victims and human rights organisations to order arrests, reopen prosecutions, and ultimately declare the nullity of the amnesty laws," Gastón Chillier, director of that country's Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), told IPS. The due obedience and full stop laws, which kept members of the Argentine military out of the courts, were declared null by the Supreme Court in 2005, and today there are more than 300 people charged and in custody for human rights violations, and 32 have been convicted. Many more legal proceedings are fully underway, said Chillier.

Lawyer Carlos Peña, rector of the Diego Portales University, also spoke of the process of "recovering the historical memory" that was established by law in Spain in 2007, which seeks to identify victims' remains found in mass graves, grant reparations for crimes and vindicate the victims of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (1939-1975). "It is ironic that 10 years after the Pinochet case, the state that confronted the Chilean government back then, seeking the extradition of Pinochet, is now remembering and making efforts to incorporate into its country's current collective memory events that it had been bent on silencing since Franco's death," said Peña. "And that's because, as we all know, and the Pinochet case itself shows, avoiding the past is as absurd as avoiding our own shadow," he concluded.

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