Mon, 17 Jan 2000

Pinochet's case remains milestone for int'l justice

By Jerome Socolovsky

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP): Gen. Augusto Pinochet's arrest in Britain on a Spanish warrant marked a turning point in the heady quest for human rights accountability that transcends international borders.

It sent a clear warning that the days were over when retired dictators and other alleged rights abusers could count on immunity from prosecution whether at home or abroad.

But while the prospect of the 84-year-old former Chilean strongman's release on medical grounds underscores the difficulties of bringing accused political leaders to trial, a precedent has been set with far-reaching consequences.

International law experts predict it will further energize the emerging system of global justice that has already convicted Rwandan butchers and Balkan executioners and sparked calls for accountability in places where injustice and oppression were once facts of life.

And it comes at a time when the United States and other governments are concerned that the widening envelope of accountability might be used for political ends against their own military or government officials.

"The case has been extremely important for international law," said Theodor Meron, a New York University Law School professor. "The fact that one particular defendant cannot stand trial on medical grounds does not at all weaken the precedent."

In October 1998, Pinochet was in London for medical treatment when British police arrested him on an extradition warrant from Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon.

Pinochet most likely figured that diplomatic immunity would shield him from charges that he was responsible for the deaths, torture and disappearances of thousands of Chileans during his 1973-1990 dictatorship.

If so, he seriously underestimated the parameters of the new judicial world order that had been developing since the end of the Cold War.

A global civil society was in the making, with an increasingly influential human rights movement and pressure groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch pricking humanity's conscience on a daily basis.

The establishment in 1993 of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal and its sister court on the 1994 Rwandan genocide resurrected the promise of universal accountability that had been frozen since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials following World War II.

With Pinochet's arrest, it was beginning to seem that, sooner or later, no one would be above the law of human rights enshrined in international treaties and conventions.

Last summer, another general accused of atrocities repeated Pinochet's mistake.

Gen. Momir Talic, the Bosnian army chief of staff, flew to Vienna to attend a seminar on European security, only to be arrested by Austrian police on a warrant from the Yugoslav tribunal in The Hague.

Pinochet's case suggests that a crucial ingredient in the global trend is the independence of judges from their political bosses.

Garzon's indictment of Pinochet and 98 former Argentine military officers put the Spanish government in a tricky spot. Madrid refused to champion the case, apprehensive about accusations of neocolonialism and having staked much of country's economic growth on commercial ventures in Latin America.

Likewise, the prospect of international courts with independent powers to try individuals has the United States concerned that government or military figures might become targets of political vendettas.

Washington has refused to sign onto a treaty creating an international criminal court to prosecute humanitarian crimes throughout the world, in part because it says its military officials can only be responsible to its own national courts.

U.S. concerns were underscored recently when the Yugoslav tribunal looked into allegations that North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) violated international law in its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in last spring's Kosovo crisis.

Washington responded by insisting that NATO adhered to all international laws of war, in a clear message to the tribunal to keep its hands off the U.S.-led military alliance.

"What the Pinochet case highlights is a desire to apply international standards of law with clear rules of evidence and due process. There has to be a just cause, more than just personal animosity," said Kevin Clements, a human rights expert with International Alert, a London-based conflict-resolution group.