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Saturday, December 14, 2002

The General In His Labyrinth

Today I saw the film “The Pinochet Case.”

It was a bit slow, as they inexplicably included a few puzzling shots of volcanic rumblings and shots of empty august British court rooms. (They also laid the testimony of survivors on pretty thick, but I don’t walk into a documentary film about a dictator and his regime not expecting to see that sort of thing.)

The almost unprecedented nature of these proceedings is a source of fascination. Are we about to enter a new era of international law, one where foreign jurisdictions and the international community can, at least in theory, enforce international law against foreign heads of state?

An attorney in Spain, a former aide to deposed President Salvador Allende, came up with the idea of trying – in a foreign court, specifically a Spanish court - General Augusto Pinochet for the tortures, murders, and “disappearances” that occurred during the 17-year reign of his military junta in Chile. He found a willing element in the Spanish judiciary to hear his case, and soon several other European countries took up the cause as well.

So, while Pinochet was in London - partly as a tourist, partly to receive medical treatment – British authorities arrested him. There was a long series of judicial maneuverings, which ended in concluding that Pinochet could be extradited to Spain to answer for crimes committed under his command, only to have the British government conclude his poor for him to stand trial, and sent him home to Chile. The story is not over, since Chilean courts are wrestling the issue of trying him there.

Something I was disappointed didn’t come up much in the film – the possible implications of a future where heads of state or former heads of state are tried in foreign courts for offenses committed in their own countries that, for whatever, reason, the country itself chooses not to address.

Now of course there’s one concrete exception to all of this – the Nuremburg trials. It’s a reasonably good blueprint for a future of international justice, even if one way to analyze them is as a manifestation of power politics (i.e. a form of reparation exacted from the losers of a major war by the winners.) It’s not as if the realities of power politics are going to disappear simply because we will them away. But change has to start somewhere, and if one desires a change in an international law paradigm, a trial of Augusto Pinochet may not be a bad place to start.

One Conservative British MP went on camera and said our system of international diplomacy wouldn’t work without immunity for foreign heads of state for acts committed in their own country, and that the distinction between sitting and former heads of state is a tenuous one.

He’s probably right about that, although there’s a plausible argument to be made that, well, maybe our system of international diplomacy needs to be shaken up.

Even if you’re not (as some conservatives do) going to defend Pinochet or his regime on the merits, you have to ponder this for a bit. Pinochet abided by the results of a 1990 election and agreed to step down, with the idea that he was going to be allowed to leave office gracefully. In some way, isn’t this effort to bring him to justice an invalidation of such understanding, both in the specific and in the general case? Certainly there is much sentiment in Chile for letting bygones be bygones, and not all of it comes from the military or even from those inclined towards the right.

One has to consider the incentives. There are dictators around the world right now. In some sense, the message the prosecution of Pinochet sends to them is “There is no turning back. If you step down, they will make the rest of your life miserable. So hold onto power at all costs, fighting until the bitter end if necessary.” Might not such a message lead to more strife, more civil wars, and more suffering?

However, maybe all that short-term suffering is worth it. What if tomorrow’s despots, the ones not yet in power, act knowing that some day the international community may take them to task? If it means fewer death squads, fewer dirty wars, and a reluctance to resort to torture or persecution, and an unwillingness to murder one’s opponents, then the short-term pain of the ugly departure of the world’s remaining despotisms is well worth the positive long-term aspects of a greater accountability on the part of heads of states for atrocities of their regimes.

Perhaps despots would continue to act as they do now even in the face of international pressure, which would make all of this folly. At the other end of the scale, though, maybe the idea of becoming a dictator, is less attractive in an age where they are made to answer for their crimes. How would the behavior of the world’s warlords change? I don’t know. I think it might be worth finding out, though.

The human rights violations (depicted at length in the film) that took place in Chile – the brutal system of torture, murder, and abduction – horrible though they were, are unfortunately all too common around the world. We can all name countries off the top of our heads. Cambodia. El Salvador. Bosnia. Rwanda. Burma. Afghanistan. Most of them saw witness to atrocities far worse, in sheer numbers if nothing else, than anything Pinochet or his subordinates did. I have to ask: If diplomacy as we know it is indifferent to genocide, what good is it?

From the unique perspective of the United States, there is an additional question. The United States is the world’s only military superpower. No other country, friend or foe, even dreams of throwing its weight around the way the U.S. does regularly. Sometimes, the United States attempts to seek international approval for its actions, but wishes, particularly this administration, to reserve the right to act unilaterally, not having to answer to anyone. Presumably, then, the United States stands the most to lose from this development. (Some of these same issues are behind the vigorous opposition of the United States to the International Criminal Court, which I’ll discuss elsewhere.)

Frankly, I’d rather the United States have some new reason to think twice before it acted recklessly overseas for selfish reasons, helping (intentionally or inadvertently) to oppress, impoverish, and otherwise make life miserable for people living in some distant country most Americans couldn’t find on a map. It would have the added advantage of making it harder for Osama bin Laden and his ilk to recruit people willing to die in the act of killing Americans, or Israelis, or Kenyans, or anyone other than militant Islamists, without having to really cave in to any of their demands.

It’s my first rule of human behavior. Unaccountability is bad. When people know they can act with impunity is when they are at their worst. All-powerful governments are bad. All-powerful corporations are bad. All-powerful institutions of any kind are bad.

If eliminating impunity begins with the head of Augusto Pinochet on a platter, then, well, I for one will not weep for him.

(You know, I think I’m going to give these rants titles from now on…)


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