The Long Arm of International Law the Oct. 16 Arrest of Chile's Former Dictator for Extradition to Spain Means Human Rights Violators Have Fewer Havens.; Pinocet's Arrest

By Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 21, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Long Arm of International Law the Oct. 16 Arrest of Chile's Former Dictator for Extradition to Spain Means Human Rights Violators Have Fewer Havens.; Pinocet's Arrest


Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Gen. Augusto Pinochet arrived in London recently having no idea that the legal equivalent of a giant target had been affixed to his back.

He knows it now. And so do the likes of Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and Radovan Karadzic.

The arrest of Chile's former dictator in England at Spain's request effectively put dictators, thugs, and terrorists on notice. The world just became a more dangerous place for anyone accused of committing crimes against humanity, according to experts in international law. Spain's pursuit of General Pinochet, if successful, will change the landscape of human rights enforcement, making it increasingly difficult for suspected war criminals, torturers, and practitioners of genocide to travel abroad. In Chile, he is immune from prosecution. But not in London, legal experts say. And certainly not in Spain, which wants to try him on charges of genocide, torture, and terrorism. "As soon as Pinochet left Chile, he was fair game," says Paul Hoffman, a human rights lawyer in Los Angeles and head of Amnesty International in the US. Mr. Hoffman says under international law all nations have the authority to arrest and put on trial someone accused of crimes against humanity. It is rare for states to act as boldly as has Spain with its request for Pinochet's extradition from Britain. But human rights activists say they are hopeful that other states will follow Spain's lead. "The message it sends to dictators and human rights abusers is that you might have been able to get away with this and not face the consequences in your own country, but don't think you are going to come to our country and not have to pay the penalty," says Mark Zaid, an attorney in Washington, D.C. Spain's move did not happen in isolation, Mr. Zaid and other experts say. It is all part of a general worldwide trend toward beefing up enforcement of human rights laws. Ad hoc war crimes tribunals authorized by the United Nations are at work in both Bosnia and Rwanda, and negotiations are ongoing toward the establishment of a permanent International Criminal Court that would prosecute alleged war criminals in future cases. New laws in the US are permitting Americans to sue foreign governments allegedly sponsoring terrorism that injure them or their relatives. In three cases this past year, damage awards have been made against Cuba and Iran. But the lack of diplomatic relations between the US and those countries makes it unlikely the plaintiffs will collect. In one indication of a major change in the international climate concerning human rights and war crimes, President of Argentina Carlos Menem earlier this year unilaterally offered to turn over to Israel or any other interested country a Croatian who allegedly ran a camp where tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs, and Gypsies were killed during World War II. "All of that is contributing to a sense that at the start of the 21st century it is unacceptable for those accused of these crimes to enjoy any benefit from impunity," says Richard Dicker, a lawyer at Human Rights Watch in New York. But some legal experts are questioning whether a Spanish magistrate's charges that Pinochet engaged in terrorism and genocide are an exaggeration that could undermine his case. …

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