Magazine article The Spectator

Nothing Ethical about This Policy

Magazine article The Spectator

Nothing Ethical about This Policy

Article excerpt

UNTIL the Law Lords' split decision on 25 November to reverse the earlier ruling of the Court of Appeal and deny General Pinochet's claim to immunity from prosecution in a foreign jurisdiction, this affair could be treated mainly as a dramatic reprise of grim events in the 1970s, and grist to the mills of conspiracy theorists. Was the original ministerial decision to approve the arrest of an ex-president of Chile at the behest of the maverick Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon a cock-up or a Cook-up? Was the whole of the Cabinet secretly delighted at the prospect of a show trial in Spain of the symbolic `fascist dictator' they had all loved to hate since their radical student days? Would Pinochet have been held if he had been called Pin O'Shea?

The joking is over now. Government hopes that the judiciary would get them out of the mess they had blundered into have been destroyed, and the Law Lords, by drawing limits round the concept of absolute sovereign immunity, have thrown the ball back into the government's lap. They, and particularly Jack Straw, have to face the fact that in the real world political actions have political consequences. Pace his colleague Peter Mandelson, Mr Straw must put the national interest above undergraduate reflexes. The extradition of such a reviled figure as Pinochet to Spain might at first have seemed an attractive move as a sop to old Labour passions, but there would be a high price to be paid both in Britain and in Chile.

Furthermore, while this landmark legal decision delighted the human rights campaigners, it has opened a Pandora's box for ministers, who must now think through all its implications. It is rubbish to pretend that the Pinochet case stands on its own or is purely a `quasi-judicial' decision for the Home Secretary. Would the government allow the extradition of ex-president George Bush to Panama or Ronald Reagan to Libya or Henry Kissinger to Cambodia? No! But what about any number of lesser foreign leaders who might face trumped-up, or genuine, charges laid against them by political opponents? Would New Labour be so pleased if it had been Fidel Castro or Mikhail Gorbachev or any of China's bloodstained leaders who had been arrested in Britain after being received here as (more or less) welcome guests? All these questions are essentially political and there can be no more hiding behind judicial skirts.

What has been glaringly missing from ministers' handling of this affair so far is any recognition of the gradual process of reconciliation and democratic development which has gone forward in Chile since elected governments took over from the military in 1990. Terrible things were done with Pinochet's authority after the coup 25 years ago. We all condemn them, but in Europe most people seem to know little else. A few facts might help.

The Pinochet regime was no more brutal than others in Latin America at the time (Argentina, Paraguay etc.), and less horrific than many in our violent century: Cambodia, China, Iraq and many in Africa come to mind. Dictators do not usually allow themselves to be voted out of office, but this was what Pinochet did in 1988 after losing in a national referendum. His regime was also unusual in having been so successful in rebuilding the economy that he won 44 per cent of the popular vote, even after 15 years of dictatorship.

After free elections, an agreed transition to democracy was carried through by centre-left administrations led by two respected Christian Democrat presidents, Patricio Aylwin and Eduardo Frei. This included a peace process started by Aylwin's appointment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which reported in 1991 and has been succeeded by a continuing commission charged with investigating any crimes which come to light and providing compensation for the families of victims. …

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