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For oppressors, there must be no save haven


By deciding to release Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Britain has forfeited a historic opportunity. A public trial would have made it possible to punish the brutal dictator for the murder and torture of thousands of Chilean citizens and might even have implicated those who supported and aided his crimes. The CIA was surely apprehensive, and it seems likely that it exploited its “special relationship” with Britain to demand Pinochet’s release.

Fortunately, Britain’s pusillanimous decision did not totally undermine the efforts of those who struggled to bring Pinochet to justice. First, the very attempt to prosecute Pinochet strengthened the civil forces in Chile, and they are now striving to revoke his lifelong immunity in order to indict him. Second, the decision corroborated what human rights activists have been saying for years: Britain and the United States are often the guardians of oppressors, rather than the oppressed.

Third, the dictator’s release weakened the widespread conception that liberal democracies are the natural protectors of human rights. While the “enlightened” Tony Blair let the South American executioner loose, a “primitive” Senegalese court indicted Chad’s exiled dictator, Hissein Habre, whose regime murdered 40,000 citizens and tortured thousands more.

Finally, and most important, the Pinochet case set a precedent. This precedent strengthens human rights by extending their jurisdiction beyond the nation-state. A Spanish judge could order Pinochet’s arrest for crimes committed in Chile precisely because of the universal recognition of human rights.

Reed Brody, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director, explains that normally jurisdiction over a crime depends on a link, usually territorial, between the prosecuting state and the crime itself. However, in the case of crimes against humanity, any state can bring the perpetrators of crimes of international concern to justice, no matter where the crime was committed, and regardless of the nationality of the perpetrators or their victims. The Spanish judge’s authority, for instance, is derived from the rule of “universal jurisdiction.”

Genocide, war crimes and torture are among the human rights offenses subject to universal jurisdiction under international law. In order to facilitate the prosecution of leaders accused of crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch recently published a list of criminals living in exile. These include Gens. Raoul Cedras and Philippe Biamby who led the bloody coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti. During their dictatorship, thousands were killed, tortured and raped. Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, the leader of Haiti’s death squad, now lives in New York and is wanted by Haitian prosecutors. Perhaps the United States is refusing to extradite him because a public trial will reveal that he received regular paychecks and encouragement from the CIA while building his terror network.

The Human Rights Watch report includes Idi Amin and Milton Obote, both of whom are responsible for the murders of an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 people in Uganda; Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay, who used widespread torture against political opponents; and Mengistu Haile Miriam, who killed tens of thousands of political opponents during his “Red Terror” reign in Ethiopia.

I would like to add two names to the list: Yakov Peri and Jibril Rajoub. As the former head of Israel’s secret services, Peri was responsible for torturing thousands of Palestinians. Although he lives in Israel, today he is a businessman and could be indicted and imprisoned on one of his excursions to the United States or Europe. Along the same line, Rajoub, the current head of the Palestinian secret services, is responsible for the torture of hundreds of inmates. He, too, travels abroad.

Those who commit crimes against humanity must stop feeling secure. Universal jurisdiction can be employed to ensure that there will no longer be “safe haven” for them - and it’s up to us to use it.

Neve Gordon teaches human rights in the department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University, Israel, and can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000