The Pinochet Principle

The Pinochet Principle

The arrest of Augusto Pinochet in England more than a year ago stunned the world and emboldened those seeking to bring dictators and war criminals to justice.


The arrest of Augusto Pinochet in England more than a year ago stunned the world and emboldened those seeking to bring dictators and war criminals to justice. Until his arrest, the old concept of sovereign immunity–and the natural tendency of political leaders to protect their own–shielded former dictators. Although it now looks probable that the British government will bar Pinochet’s extradition to Spain on health grounds, the legal justification for his arrest has been upheld by Britain’s Law Lords. In the hope of inspiring more extradition requests and war crimes trials, what follows is a late-twentieth-century bestiary. The list is of course incomplete, with special attention given, where appropriate, to the US role as enabler and accomplice. Reigning tyrants have been excluded, given that they’re beyond reach of the law when at home and enjoy diplomatic immunity when traveling. Let a thousand prosecutions bloom!

§ Jean-Claude Duvalier has been living in France since he was spirited out of Haiti in 1986 by the US Air Force, which helped him escape an angry populace fed up with his fifteen-year dictatorship. Until he ran out of the money he stole from the Haitian people, Duvalier luxuriated on the Côte d’Azur; now he’s said to be living in penury in one of the scruffier suburbs of Paris. In the wake of Pinochet’s arrest, a group of Haitian exiles in France who were tortured in Haiti before they fled filed suit against Duvalier alleging crimes against humanity. The case was thrown out because French law addresses only such crimes committed during World War II and because the crimes alleged occurred before 1994, when the law was adopted. The plaintiffs plan to file a civil suit, and if that fails, they will go to the European Court of Justice.

Among the coup leaders who ousted elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, Raoul Cédras and Philippe Biamby are now living in Panama; Michel François, a former CIA asset, is in Honduras; and Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, also a CIA asset and leader of the bloodsoaked death squad FRAPH, which was formed at the urging of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, is living in Queens, New York. Haiti has filed extradition requests for these men but has been turned down by all governments. In 1995 a US immigration judge ordered Constant’s deportation, but the State Department intervened, allowing him refuge in the United States. The department says the deportation order is still valid but claims that he hasn’t been shipped back because doing so might bring about “social disorder.” This newfound concern for Haitian civil society is touching, in light of Washington’s earlier encouragement of Constant’s depredations.

§ Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish magistrate seeking Pinochet’s extradition from England, recently issued an international arrest warrant for ninety-eight members of the military junta that ruled Argentina in the seventies and early eighties, charging genocide, torture and terrorism. The new Argentine president, Fernando de la Rúa, has not acted on the request. Two of the junta leaders, Leopoldo Galtieri and Gen. Roberto Viola, as well as many other officers implicated in human rights crimes, were trained at the US-run School of the Americas (SOA).

§ Gen. José Guillermo García was defense minister of El Salvador from 1979 to 1983. Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova was commander of the National Guard during the same period and succeeded García as defense minister. Under the supervision of these two–both of whom are SOA graduates–tens of thousands of Salvadorans were tortured and murdered, as were three American nuns and a lay worker in 1980. Although the US government has rejected asylum requests for thousands of Central Americans attempting escape from death squads, García and Vides Casanova have been granted residence in Florida. The families of the murdered nuns have filed a federal wrongful-death suit against the two generals, and a group of Salvadoran refugees and torture survivors has also filed federal charges.

§ Between 1978 and 1983, Romeo Lucas García and Efraín Ríos Montt slaughtered Guatemalans, especially the Mayans, with a savagery so appalling that the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission declared their regimes to be genocidal. Such behavior was clearly pleasing to the Reagan Administration, whose Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders (who directed from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh the B-52 carpet-bombing of vast, heavily populated sections of Cambodia in the early seventies) praised Ríos Montt for his “effective counterinsurgency”; Reagan himself told Congress that the dictator had been given a “bum rap.” Lucas is living in quiet retirement in Venezuela. Ríos Montt entered civilian politics after he was overthrown in 1983; his Guatemalan Republican Front is now the leading party in the National Congress, with Ríos Montt himself having been elected to a seat and his ally Alfonso Portillo having been elected president this past December. Before the election, former members of the army’s civil patrol threatened that if Portillo won, they would kill anyone who has testified about or denounced human rights violations. One positive development is the January arrest of three men for the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi. In December Nobel Peace Prizewinner Rigoberta Menchú, inspired by Garzón’s case against Pinochet, filed charges in Spain against Lucas, Ríos Montt and six other officials of the dictatorships, charging them with genocide, state terrorism and torture. The charges include the Guatemalan military’s 1980 assault on the Spanish Embassy; among the fourteen Spanish officials and twenty-five Guatemalan protesters burned alive was Menchú’s father.

§ Alfredo Stroessner, who tortured and disappeared thousands during his three-decade dictatorship of Paraguay before his 1989 overthrow, now lives in a mansion in Brasília, Brazil. In 1992 a huge trove of documents was discovered in a Paraguayan police station that reveals not only Stroessner’s deep involvement in Operation Condor, the Pinochet-led seven-nation assassination and torture campaign headquartered in Asunción, but close US cooperation with the dictatorships as well. Many of these documents have been forwarded to Judge Garzón in Spain.

§ Hissein Habre ruled Chad between 1982 and 1990 with US and French military support, murdering and torturing thousands before his overthrow and flight to Senegal. Earlier this month the Senegalese government indicted Habre and placed him under house arrest in response to a complaint filed by his Chadian victims and several human rights organizations alleging murder, disappearance and torture. According to Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, one of the plaintiff groups, “The Pinochet case helped a lot. It was only after the Pinochet decision that we felt this was a real possibility.”

§ Idi Amin, dictator of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, slaughtered hundreds of thousands with baroque ferocity and summarily expelled tens of thousands of East Indians, uprooting an entire ethnic community that had deep roots in the country. He now lives a princely existence in a marble villa in Saudi Arabia, where the government has furnished him with cars, drivers and other sundries.

§ Mengistu Haile Mariam seized power in Ethiopia after the 1974 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie. Mengistu, a Soviet client during most of his rule, killed and tortured thousands before he was overthrown in 1991, when he fled to Zimbabwe. The Ethiopian government has sought his return, so far to no avail. It also sought his extradition from South Africa recently when Mengistu traveled there for medical treatment, but the South African government rejected the request.

§ In a precedent-setting decision on January 24, the US Supreme Court denied an appeal from Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor from Rwanda, who is fighting transfer from the United States to the international criminal tribunal in Tanzania for his role in the massacre of several hundred Tutsis during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Ntakirutimana, who was defended by former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, had fled to Texas to avoid arrest in Rwanda. If the deportation succeeds, it would be the first such expulsion to a current war crimes tribunal by the United States.

§ When he was defense minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon planned and led the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, during which he ordered the saturation bombing of heavily populated West Beirut, killing and maiming thousands of civilians with phosphorus and cluster bombs. Sharon then allowed the Lebanese Phalangist militia to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, where they murdered up to 2,000 people when the camps were under tight Israeli Army control. (Amos Yaron, the general who held operational command of the Israeli Army in West Beirut and who observed the Phalangist operation through binoculars from a nearby rooftop, has recently been named Director General of the Defense Ministry by Prime Minister Ehud Barak.) Sharon is now head of Israel’s opposition Likud Party.

§ Indonesia’s Suharto, who finally left power in 1998 after thirty-two years of dictatorship, is living in Jakarta in very bad health and is said to be fearful of traveling to Europe for medical care because he might be subject to the Pinochet treatment. After he seized power in 1965-66, Suharto oversaw the massacre of some half a million Indonesians in an anti-Communist witch hunt. In 1975 he ordered the invasion of East Timor, after which about 200,000 people were murdered by the Indonesian armed forces–equipped and trained by the US government under both Democratic and Republican administrations–before Indonesia finally withdrew from the country this past fall.

§ Henry Kissinger was never a dictator–of the United States. But given that he was a chief architect of Richard Nixon’s murderous escalation of the war in Southeast Asia, during which hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian civilians were killed, and that he helped engineer Salvador Allende’s overthrow by Pinochet in 1973 and gave US endorsement to Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975, Kissinger ranks with the dictators and war criminals on this list. He lives in elegance on Manhattan’s East Side, traveling the world lecture circuit with the gravitas befitting a great diplomat.

In contrast with the deplorable record of the US government, US human rights organizations have been in the forefront in pursuing war criminals. The Center for Constitutional Rights has used the 200-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act and the 1992 Torture Victim Protection Act to win millions in civil damages against foreigners living in the United States who are guilty of crimes that render the perpetrator hostis humani generis, an “enemy of all mankind.” In one of the most important of these rulings, in two civil suits against Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has held that a “private actor” can be liable for violations of international humanitarian law and that this is applicable even if the entity he represents–in this case the Republika Srpska–is not generally recognized as a state. The San Francisco-based Center for Justice & Accountability has brought three cases in US courts, and after the Pinochet arrest, Human Rights Watch set up an international justice initiative under advocacy director Brody to press for the extradition and prosecution of former dictators and war criminals.

The rapid pace of marketplace globalization, in which the power of national governments has been increasingly weakened, makes judicial globalization inevitable. The new International Criminal Court is a notable example of this trend. But justice will be served only if all human rights abusers–those who give the orders and their accomplices as well as those who carry out the crimes–are held accountable, and if the citizens of all nations, including the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, are judged by the same standards. The arrest of Pinochet, who until last year was thought to be immune to prosecution, is a magnificent advance in that direction.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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