International Criminal Court: The Pinochet Case

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  • by Anup Shah
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Before the International Criminal Court (ICC), there have been numerous political problems in bringing people to justice for committing horrendous crimes. But a number of specific criminal tribunals have started to perhaps raise the stakes. As the title of an article1 from the French paper, Le Monde suggests, even Presidents are under pressure on issues of crimes against humanity.

Taking one example here, this involves the case of the prosecution of former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. He has been accused of ordering killings, abductions and torture of over 1000 Chileans and others during his 17 years of rule: The original ruling2 against his arrest, October 1998, in UK due to his diplomatic/sovereign immunity, would have meant that people like Sadaam Hussain and Slobodan Milosevic, would not be arrested or tried for crimes3 that they have committed while they were heads of state -- well not in the UK, anyway.

On this page:

  1. A YoYo of Rulings!
  2. Political Will
  3. US Involvement In Chilean Destabilization
  4. More Information

A YoYo of Rulings!

A subsequent potentially important step forward, where the original ruling against his arrest was overturned4 by Britain's highest court itself was overturned5 because one of the judges' wife worked for Amnesty International! But there had then been another decision by the House of Lords who subsequently ruled that Pinochet did not have immunity6 from prosecution on charges of gross human rights violation. In fact, April 15, 1999 saw Jack Straw, the Home Secretary in Britain, reveal that he had given authority for extradition proceedings of Pinochet, to Spain, to go ahead7.

France was also re-evaluating whether it can prosecute Pinochet in France, for crimes against humanity. (The families of two French men who had been killed in Chile had their complaints thrown out by a previous magistrate.)

On October 8, 1999 a British Magistrate decided officially authorized8 Pinochet's extradition to Spain. (Also check out this link9 to a Democracy Now radio show interview for more about this ruling.)

Just as this was turning out to be a successful case for human rights, in mid January 2000, Jack Straw, British Home Secratary, claimed that medical doctors had declared Pinochet was unfit to stand trial and had to be returned to Chile. The leading doctor said that he did not claim he could not stand trial, as this is beyond his area of responsibilities and expertise. However, the way it was put, Straw had misled the members of Parliament10.

This ended up allowing Pinochet to be released. He returned to Chile, in apparent good health11. However, there his immunity was revoked12 and at the beginning of December, 2000, a Chilean judge ordered the arrest of Pinochet13 in order to try him, while Argentina has also been seeking extradition. While in the middle of January 2001 there was initially a U-turn, at the end of January 2001, Pinochet's charges were reinstated14.

As former dictator Augusto Pinochet was preparing to take pretrial mental exams, and as the Chilean military was releasing a report acknowledging that during the Pinochet dictatorship the bodies of scores of political opponents and leftists had been thrown into the ocean, perhaps the satirical Santiago tabloid The Clinic put the situation most pungently. Why Bother With the Tests? asked the headline. Only a Psychopath Would Toss Bodies Into the Sea.


Pinochet denied ever ordering anyone's death and blamed the massacre on regional subordinates. ... Retired Gen. Joaquin Lagos ... breaking two decades of silence, said Pinochet was fully informed of the mass killing carried out by his troops. They took their eyes out of their sockets with daggers, breaking their jaws, breaking their legs, General Lagos said. They shot them in segments, first the legs, then the sexual organs, then the heart with submachine guns...there was not even a final mercy shot.

Marc Cooper, Chile and the End of Pinochet15, The Nation Magazine, Feb 26, 2001.

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Political Will

There had been an intense debate16 between the universal jurisdiction of international law, used as the basis for the arrest, and the claim that this violates national sovereignty. Many political factors17 have prevented effective resolution of this issue thus far. Double standards18 when it comes to speaking out about trying some people but not others because there may have been a political motive in the past does not help either.

Perhaps another thing emerging from this of importance is that there seems to be a possibility that other brutal Latin American dictators of the past could also be brought to justice19.

As mentioned in the opening quote above, some have pointed out that while people like Pinochet can potentially be bought to justice, others from more powerful nations have hardly ever been held accountable. However, while there is a lot of credibility to that argument, it is also not an excuse not to try anyone at all! If the stronger nations are able to prosecute former dictators and others, who they have sometimes supported, especially in the name of humanity and democracy, then hopefully, more people in these countries become aware of these issues, and slowly make their own leaders accountable as well, by applying the same high principles that they preach onto others.

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US Involvement In Chilean Destabilization

Some have noted USA's surprising relative silence on this matter of human rights -- probably because it has emerged, that in the 70s, Kissinger covered up20 torture and other abuses21 in Chile by the Pinochet Regime.

Recently declassified22 (but censored) official documents show how much the US has been involved in the coup in the 70s, due to US interests and fears of communism and in Chile. (See also this news report23 for more information about that.)

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More Information

For more web resources, check out the following:

  • The British newspaper, Guardian On-line documentary24.
  • The Pinochet Dispatch25.
  • The National Security Archives have declassified documents26 on line about the role of the US in Chile.
  • The Pinochet Prosecution27 from Human Rights Watch provides updates and reports.
  • Chile and the End of Pinochet28, by Marc Cooper from The Nation Magazine, Feb 26, 2001, looks at some of the issues surrounding the Chilean military's acknowledgment of dumping political opponents into the sea during the Pinochet dictatorship.
  • this link29 from Foreign Policy In Focus.

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