Prosecuting Pinochet minus world mandate Precedent: Problem of holding dictator accountable points to need for international criminal court.

December 01, 1998

THE DISTRESS of Chile's former dictator, Augusto Pinochet, is good cheer for human rights enforcement. He was complicitous in more than 3,000 deaths and disappearances, as well as tortures and deprivations. Bringing the tyrant to justice would make others tremble, or at least reflect.

Simple as that sounds, the request for the sick old general's extradition from Britain to Spain is not straightforward.

It flows from neither international agreement nor tribunal, but from one investigating magistrate's quest and personal concept of international law.

Judge Baltasar Garzon's crusade is not supported by his own government and carries none of the authority of international tribunals prosecuting crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Britain's highest judges in the House of Lords ruled that the 83-year-old general, a regular visitor to Britain for medical attention, was not immune from law as head of state when atrocities occurred. That is a wise ruling, but does not say whether General Pinochet should be extradited.

Two troubling aspects intrude. One is that this would be precedent for any manner of legal intervention in the affairs of other nations. What would stop Saddam Hussein from using it to request President Clinton's extradition for bombing Iraq in 1993 and 1996 when Mr. Clinton visits Gaza?

The second objection is interference with Chile's sovereignty. In its path to democracy and national reconciliation, Chile has investigated crimes but given General Pinochet immunity.

Whatever one thinks of this -- Chileans are bitterly divided -- is it for a Spanish magistrate to nullify?

The United States has interests in the conflict. It should want General Pinochet in connection with the investigation into the 1976 car bombing that killed Orlando Letelier and Ronnie Karpen Moffit in Washington. A former chief of Chile's secret police, convicted of this crime by a Chilean court in 1993, has testified that he always acted under orders from President Pinochet. Yet Washington must wonder whether Judge Garzon's quest for U.S. documents would result in charges against U.S. officials for aid to General Pinochet's 1973 coup.

The legal vacuum this case illuminates will recur. It demonstrates the need for an international criminal court, which has been agreed to by an international conference but not ratified.

The United States objects to the lack of accountability of such a court. The Pinochet case, if nothing else, shows the urgent need for a world court that meets Washington's legitimate objections.

Pub Date: 12/01/98

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