The arrest of retired General Augusto Pinochet, unrepentant tyrant, seemed impossible. Only hours after the police quietly arrived at the London Clinic, on 16 October 1998, but before it was publicly known, I was busy exhorting over 300 people at a meeting to demand his arrest and make public their disgust at Pinochet’s visit to Britain in search of new arms deals.
It is hard to describe the impact of the glorious news. It was as though fortifications which had seemed unbreachable had suddenly collapsed, as if some imposed unnatural silence were suddenly rent by a howl. Most victims of human-rights violations in South America have seen all their desire for justice smashed against the solid walls of impunity and amnesty. They have lived recounting their experiences and met studied silences.
I did not know yet that the ensuing legal battle would mean a huge step forward, in a real and tangible way, for international human rights. All I knew then was that for every South American, hope was revived – the region’s best-protected human-rights violator stood accused, at last.
Victims and survivors
The people who began to chip away at his fortifications belonged to the Spanish-based organizations of victims from Chile and Argentina and their relatives. They brought private cases to the Spanish courts. The idea of appealing to foreign courts originated in Italy where in 1983 criminal procedures against Argentinian military officers accused of disappearing Italian citizens were begun. Independently, Captain Alfredo Astiz – an infamously unrepentant torturer, the man who infiltrated the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – was tried and found guilty in France of the deaths of two French nuns.
These cases were based on the principle that a country can pursue crimes committed against their citizens, regardless of where or by whom the crimes have been committed – a process known as the right of extraterritoriality. But the Spanish judges went much further. To claim their right to universal jurisdiction, they made use of international criminal law which has existed since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders. Since 1996, they have been investigating deaths during the brutal dictatorships of the 1970s in Argentina and Chile.
The cases were eventually consolidated under the responsibility of judge Baltazar Garzón, who also began to investigate Operación Condor, the code name for military co-operation in the campaign of disappearances and murder across the countries of the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil).
Scene of the crimes
The 1973 coup in Chile, led by General Augusto Pinochet, was a violent suspension of constitutional rule in a country with a long democratic tradition. This followed a trend in the region, where Brazil had been under military rule since 1964, Bolivia since 1971, while Uruguay also succumbed in 1973. Uruguay had a history of democratic and reformist governments, which suffered a huge reversal: Amnesty International calculated that in 1976 it had more political prisoners per capita than any other nation on earth. Argentina, although prone to coups from men in uniform for the best part of 50 years, was still unprepared for the scale of indiscriminate violence the armed forces unleashed in 1976. To complete the picture, there was Paraguay, since 1954 under the heavy armed hand of General Alfredo Stroessner, a man praised by Richard Nixon as a model anti-communist and accordingly well funded and trained by the US.
In the Cold War, National Security Doctrine was taught to the military corps across Latin America, both at home and on training trips to the US or Panama. South America took the global war to heart and the military produced their own vision of how to combat communism – they saw their ‘Western-Christian’ values as under attack from an atheist left which they polarized into an enemy to be fought to the death. The compromise and negotiation which characterizes democracies was deemed insufficient to deal with the perceived dangers of revolution. Annihilation and terror were the only way. So these military regimes collaborated via Operation Condor, believing that they were fighting a global war and they were all on the same side.
The scene was set for a foreseeable tragedy to become reality. The countries of the Southern Cone were about to enter a dark period of their history, recovery from which is slow and painful.
All over the Southern Cone, tens of thousands were killed, ‘disappeared’, tortured, or fled into exile. But it is not the cold numbers which give a sense of the violence, but the extent to which the military despised and dehumanized their enemy through torture and even the theft of their children. Disappearance was carried out on a massive scale, leaving no trace to be recovered, no remains to be buried and mourned by their loved ones. Disappearance does violence to the victim and to all those around them, leaving an emptiness which only grows, not diminishes, with time.
Chances for justice
Why are Latin American human-rights violators being tried far away from the scene of their crimes, in Europe? Is justice possible in Argentina and Chile?
In Argentina when the military took over in 1976 it sought to destroy not only the armed guerrillas but also all those who might in any way support them and then anyone else who might be involved in working for social change. Society at large was terrified. A significant number of people organized resistance. As early as 1975 a Permanent Assembly for Human Rights was formed, which began to monitor violations. In April 1977, a group of mothers first came together in Plaza de Mayo.
The political and social forces ranged against the Argentinian generals after the Malvinas/Falklands War meant that they could not tailor the transition to democracy to suit their requirements. They passed a law pardoning all political crimes in 1983 before handing back power, but after elections the new Congress unanimously voted to revoke it and the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons was set up to investigate human-rights violations.
Military regimes collaborated via Operation Condor, believing that they were fighting a global war and they were all on the same side
Within two months, criminal proceedings were instituted against the members of the military juntas and the alleged leaders of the armed organizations of the Left. In an unprecedented trial, the top commanders of the armed forces, including those who had held the position of Head of State, were sentenced for illegal detention, torture and homicide and put in prison. It seemed justice was possible even in the face of a powerful military establishment.
It was not to be so easy. Sectors of the military felt outraged that their war ‘against subversion’ had been redefined as state terrorism by the presiding judge. President Alfonsín had to deal with a number of armed insurrections which did, in effect, limit the possibilities for justice and therefore for democracy, creating pressure which led to laws being passed exempting those who had carried out crimes under superior orders and curtailing any new cases. The next elected president, Carlos Menem, then went on to pardon the few who had been imprisoned.
Retaining a civilian democracy was done at the expense of justice, although the original trial was a landmark in defending human rights. But Menem’s pardon was not the end of the story. Relatives of the victims refused to give up. It took many years in the wilderness, when the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Disappeared were known as the ‘locas’, the madwomen. Their perseverance bore fruit when they were able to re-open cases against the military officers responsible for the disappearance of some 200 children, many born in illegal detention. In 1998, crimes related to their abduction have meant imprisonment again for members of the leading junta and others who evaded trial in the 1980s. And with the actions emanating from the Spanish courts, the pressure for action was stronger; suddenly justice was back within sight.
In Chile, by contrast, the military dominated the process of ‘democratization’. Pinochet remained head of state until 1990 and of the armed forces until March 1998. In 1978 he passed an Amnesty Law which has protected him and his military men from prosecution for human-rights abuses. He introduced a constitution in 1980 which provided the framework for a ‘protected democracy’. Impunity, in Chile, has remained the norm – human-rights abuses are to be forgotten because they were part of a war against socialism. Pinochet’s supporters now hysterically claim that the efforts to bring him to justice are a ‘socialist conspiracy’.
The arrest of Pinochet, via an Interpol warrant and an agreement between Spain and Britain under European terrorism legislation, is crucial. Every moment he has been detained has reduced his personal power in Chile. Every day has offered victims of his regime the feeling of being enabled to demand justice. Every week that passes, the world sees that democracy in Chile has been built on a divided society not at peace with itself. Every month since October 1998 has shown that even the military realize that the time for coups is over.
Amid the calls against trying criminals in other countries, despite the evidence of its usefulness in Chile and Argentina, the important thing to remember is that the international criminal law being used to pursue Pinochet has existed since 1945. Human rights have been recognized internationally since the 1948 Declaration, although in fact dating back at least to the French Revolution. What has changed is the political recognition of these rights.
In a way, Pinochet’s supporters may be right – there is a conspiracy against him, a conspiracy of hope deriving from the recognition of rights that states have chosen to ignore. It reminds us that campaigning by a few does change the world, although we may have to wait decades, not years, for the results to come through. No tyrant should escape justice any longer – a precedent has been set, which we must use to continue improving our political culture.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7