Called to account

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 March, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 March, 1999, 12:00am

Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic would be wise to spare a little time to study the latest ruling by the House of Lords in Britain on the extradition of Chile's former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet.

The original ruling had to be set aside because one of the Law Lords failed to declare his ties to Amnesty International. If the new ruling is more restrictive, the fundamental principle remains the same.

Tyrants the world over can now be left in no doubt that the outdated interpretation of state immunity, behind which they were previously able to shelter, will no longer protect them from being called to account for such crimes as genocide and torture after they retire. At the time of the initial ruling, by a narrow 3-2 margin, this still seemed uncertain.

But now the same point has been reiterated by a much more decisive 6-1 majority from a fresh panel of Law Lords. So there cannot be any doubt on this score. Even in the four months since the first ruling, the climate of opinion has shifted so that a point which was controversial last November is now taken almost for granted.

The calm with which this judgment was greeted in Chile gives the lie to earlier claims that the case would undermine the country's fledgling democracy. In London, the principal defence was no longer that General Pinochet enjoyed state immunity. Instead it involved a technical point of law - that he could not be tried for most of his crimes as these took place before 1988 when Britain ratified the convention making torture an offence.

It is unfortunate that the Law Lords accepted this argument, which runs counter to established extradition law. Many will suspect a deliberate compromise through which Pinochet is allowed to escape extradition. But the principle involved is far bigger than any one person. Mr Milosevic's crimes were committed long after 1988, as were many of those of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

So neither man would be protected by this loophole if and when they are deposed. They should be quaking at this judgment. At present, it only applies to Britain. But if followed in other common law countries, it will mean that such rulers can be pursued round the world for their crimes until the day they die.