The Real Shame of Pinochet

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Dec. 4 2000 11:30 PM

The Real Shame of Pinochet

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Every once in a while, something in politics happens the way it ought to happen, and the house arrest of Gen. Augusto Pinochet last weekend was just such an event. (Click here for the "International Papers" take on Pinochet's indictment.) I say this not just because I want to join the chorus of international human rights organizations who condemn the torture and kidnappings that occurred under his reign—click here, here, or here to read three of the best of them—but because I want to congratulate Chileans for taking the decision themselves. He's their dictator to judge, their ghost to exorcise. Through the mere act of putting him on trial—or even talking about putting him on trial—they will be forced to publicly confront their past, to argue about it, to discuss it. Whether they sentence him in the end is almost immaterial.

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By contrast, the British house arrest of Pinochet, which began in October 1998 and lasted until March 2000, was a disgrace. A group of Spanish lawyers took it upon themselves to bring a case against Pinochet in a Spanish court, the Spanish authorities appealed to the British for extradition, and the British arrested the general while he was lying in a medical clinic. The case went on and on—click here for the Daily Telegraph's blow-by-blow account—as British courts argued about the legality of extraditing a former head of state. A low point was reached when it emerged that Jack Straw, Britain's home secretary, who had to take the final decision on the case, had, some 30 years earlier, made a pilgrimage to Salvador Allende's Chile as a young student Communist. At one point he had to issue an official statement denying he had ever met Allende himself.

What was unpleasant about the whole thing was the sight of all of these grown-up student radicals taking self-righteous stands on an issue that was patently not theirs to take stands on. Chile is a democratic country: Surely its popularly elected government should have had more to say about the fate of its former dictator than Jack Straw. Indeed, horrified by the turn of events, the Chilean government petitioned the British government over and over again for the general's release. It appealed to the pope for support. The Chilean ambassador did the rounds of British talk shows. It wasn't that the current regime especially wanted to defend the general. Rather—in the words of Chile's most senior judge—it was that Chile was afraid we might be returning to an earlier era, "in which the law of the strongest nation was imposed on those judged to be weaker." What gave British judges the right to decide about a matter that was well within the competence of the Chilean legal system? Who said Spanish lawyers should have a greater say about the fate of a former Chilean leader than the Chileans themselves?

In the end, the British ducked the big issues, declaring Pinochet to be medically unfit to stand any sort of trial. This was probably true enough—he did apparently have two heart attacks while in captivity and had, according to a report prepared by four British doctors, suffered extensive brain damage. But as poor health is not usually an acceptable excuse as far as old Nazis are concerned—and has not been considered an acceptable excuse by the Chileans themselves—it was generally concluded that the British simply wanted to rid themselves of the whole thing.

And a good thing they did. Certainly there is something appealing about the idea that no ex-dictator should be able to live out his life in peace and obscurity. It is hard not to be cheered, for example, by the rumor that Gen. Jaruzelski, who led the martial law regime in Poland, is now, in the wake of the Pinochet saga, afraid to travel abroad. But were he actually to be arrested while in America, say, what good would that do? The Chicago Poles would love it—but all his supporters in Poland would immediately start screaming "American imperialism," and they would be right. The trial of Pinochet in Madrid would have been no better. The trial of Pinochet in Santiago, on the other hand, where the man's career can be properly judged—including the fact that, as previously noted Pinochet was also responsible for turning Chile back into a democracy—is a useful exercise for the Chileans. And they are the ones who matter here, not the Spanish or the British.

As far as democratic ex-dictatorships are concerned, this has to be the guiding principle: Wherever possible, let the country where the victims reside do the judging. There is a specter which haunts all of these "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity" cases that have lately come to be of international concern, and it is the specter of the Nuremburg trials, when the victorious Allies brought leading Nazis to justice. Leaving aside the complicated question of whether Nuremburg itself was fair—Soviet judges, who knew perfectly well that their own regime was also responsible for mass murder, were allowed to sit on the jury—it is a terrible model for the present, despite the fact that so many would like to see it repeated. Nuremburg took place in the devastation of postwar Europe, in the context of a completely occupied and subjugated Germany, a situation hardly comparable to that of modern Chile.

Or, for that matter, of modern Serbia. For Slobodan Milosevic has already been indicted by the international court in The Hague. He has also already begun his return to politics (I told you this would happen), and as he rises higher, it will be tempting for the frustrated West to drag him to Holland for a trial. But before laying down a verdict that will never be acceptable in Belgrade, we should think carefully first about what this process is actually for. Is it to make ourselves feel better or to make all the ex-Yugoslavs feel that justice was done? Perhaps we can find a medical excuse for Slobo too.  

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