Is anyone above the rule of law? Pinochet: Former Chilean dictator's arrest for human rights crimes creates legal precedent.

October 20, 1998

WHEN HE stepped down in 1990, Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet did his best to take care of everything: For seven more years, he remained the ultimate arbiter of power as his country's military commander-in-chief. He also saw to it that he was named a senator for life, an arrangement that gave him immunity from criminal prosecution under Chilean law.

General Pinochet overlooked the tenacity of Baltasar Garzon, however. Last week the Spanish magistrate had the bedridden 82-year-old former dictator arrested in an exclusive London clinic, where he was recovering from a back operation. The charge: Complicity in terrorism and in the murder of Spanish nationals among the more than 4,000 people killed for political reasons during the 17-year Pinochet rule. Countless others disappeared.

By recognizing Mr. Garzon's arrest warrant, British authorities seem to have determined that charges of human rights violations are more important than any diplomatic status a suspect may have obtained from his own government. If this precedent becomes an accepted standard in international law, tyrants everywhere will be brought to justice more easily.

Those guilty of genocide in Rwanda and Burundi could be brought into court. Dozens of Argentine military officers could be prosecuted for their roles in the torture and killing of thousands in the 1980s. And Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who have been indicted by the International Criminal Tribune in The Hague, would have a more difficult time eluding capture.

However, the Pinochet principle could upset the whole delicately constructed system of immunity. That system gives protection to international envoys. In crisis resolution, it also allows one side's terrorists to negotiate with the other side's terrorists, who then can safely return home to be greeted as statesmen and popular leaders.

The Pinochet situation raises uncomfortable questions for many countries that preach morality but settle for hypocrisy. The former dictator was neither a bona fide diplomat nor a treaty negotiator. But while diplomacy often is based on studied vagueness, human rights law does not have to be.

Pub Date: 10/20/98

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