Sunday, March 5, 2000Chile's Chance
Sixteen months after he was placed under arrest in Great Britain, Gen. Augusto Pinochet is back home in Chile. British authorities decided that the 84-year-old former dictator is too sick to stand trial in Spain on charges that he supervised the murder and torture of Spanish citizens and others after the coup that brought Gen. Pinochet to power in 1973. This result is rather less than human rights advocates had wanted. But because Britain's highest legal authority, the House of Lords, did rule that Pinochet could be extradited to Spain, the episode has altered the international legal climate surrounding crimes committed by heads of state. The case has arguably fortified the principle of "universal jurisdiction," obliging individual states to take jurisdiction over crimes, such as torture, that are prohibited by international conventions they've signed.
In reality, many dictators will not be deterred by the threat of international prosecution from murdering their subjects; Slobodan Milosevic launched his war in Kosovo last year knowing that the international tribunal in the Hague was watching his every move. If not backed by military force, indictments will have no effect on mass-murderers such as Saddam Hussein. Yet every step toward accountability is welcome.
Within Chile itself, the case has had salutary effects. Gen. Pinochet departed power in 1990 after losing a national referendum on his rule. Part of the deal under which he agreed to respect the will of the people was a guarantee that he and his men would be immune from prosecution within Chile; a truth commission would report the facts about official murder and disappearance, but none of the military perpetrators would be held individually accountable. Like other societies such as El Salvador and South Africa, Chile, through relatively democratic but partly extorted decisions, accepted this arrangement as the price of a stable future. The effort by courts in other countries to bring Gen. Pinochet to book seemed to substitute the judgment of outsiders today for that of Chileans a decade ago.
But initial fears that this would destabilize Chile's democratic order proved unfounded. To the contrary, Gen. Pinochet's physical absence from the country seemed to create a space in which Chileans of both the left and the right could look more objectively at the country's past--and plan more serenely for the future. In a closely contested presidential election campaign, the right's candidate nearly won largely because he distanced himself from Gen. Pinochet, and Socialist Ricardo Lagos won because he distanced himself from the leftist Allende regime that Gen. Pinochet overthrew. Rather than polarize the country anew, the Pinochet case seemingly anchored Chilean politics more firmly in the democratic center.
Emboldened by the international effort, Chilean victims' families have stepped forward to pursue legal remedies against Mr. Pinochet that may be permitted despite the amnesty. These long-shot efforts could be complicated by a pending constitutional reform that would unwisely give Chile's former heads of state permanent immunity from prosecution. But given all the other signs of the country's political maturity, there is reason now for activists and governments abroad to let Chileans deal with their much-diminished former strongman in their own way.