Pinochet's peril

Limbo: Consensus grows to punish crimes of tyranny, with no agreement on how.

March 04, 2000

HOLDING Gen. Augusto Pinochet accountable for atrocities on his watch from 1973 to 1990 is now a political crisis for Chile, not Britain. That explains the cryptic decision of the British home secretary, Jack Straw, to ship him home after 17 months of arrest in Britain, as mentally unfit to stand trial.

The 84-year-old former strong man is back where the populace is divided over his legacy, where some 60 lawsuits are filed against him, where President Eduardo Frei says the Chilean courts must have their say and where the still-powerful army is determined to protect its old commander.

A Spanish investigating magistrate held that General Pinochet should answer in a Spanish court for crimes during his 17-year rule in Chile. A British court held that he could face extradition proceedings. On this precedent, the former dictator of Chad, Hissene Habre, is under house arrest in Senegal, awaiting trial for violations of human rights in Chad.

However morally satisfying such proceedings might seem, they have little in common with those against indicted Yugoslavian and Rwandan mass murderers. Those flow from United Nations decisions to prosecute crimes in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. No world decision was made with respect to General Pinochet, President Habre or other tyrants.

If such trials are in order, the world needs an International Criminal Court, with common standards and rules of evidence. Such a court was approved in 1998 by 92 countries. Just six countries have ratified the court, so it doesn't yet exist.

If authorities in one country can bring charges against rulers of another, mischief will occur. One thing more dangerous than an International Criminal Court infringing on sovereignty would be its absence.

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