Pinochet case a turning point in human rights battle

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2006, 12:00am

Any suggestion that the death of Chile's former president, Augusto Pinochet, means he has eluded the justice sought by victims of his 17-year regime must be seen in the light of the changed global human rights situation he prompted. The suffering his orders inflicted during the 1970s and 1980s was so horrendous that the world has vowed that past and present leaders must be held accountable for their actions, no matter where they may be.

While that movement has so far brought to trial dictators Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein - to be followed soon by Charles Taylor - greater international pressure is needed to ensure others like them who are still in power face justice. As importantly, the impetus must continue for those accused of past crimes to be brought before courts with international human rights standards as the basis for trials. There can be no national reconciliation and countries will not be able to move confidently into the future unless this happens.

Pinochet died under house arrest without facing any of the hundreds of cases filed against him. Top-level support by those appreciative of his anti-communist policies and free-market reforms, which gave Chile the strongest economy in Latin America, ensured he avoided facing trial. But the last decade of his life was in marked contrast to the years when he acted with impunity or was considered legally untouchable because of an amnesty put in place by Chile's government. He may have died without being convicted and sentenced, but his final years were spent fighting off prosecutions.

That is cold comfort for the relatives and friends of the more than 3,000 people officially listed as having disappeared during Pinochet's regime or the hundreds of thousands more who were vilified or forced into exile. If Chile's government truly wants to heal those wounds, it must look to the example of neighbouring Argentina, which experienced similar turmoil during its so-called 'dirty war' from 1976 to 1983 and pioneered the idea of a truth and reconciliation commission.

Chileans may still be seeking justice, but other victims of state abuse elsewhere have been given hope as a result of the Pinochet case. When Britain arrested him in 1998 on human rights charges and held him for possible extradition to Spain on the grounds that courts anywhere had the right to try the gravest violations, legal history was made. Britain may have controversially returned him to Chile 17 months later on grounds of poor health, but the point had been made and victims of human rights abuses the world over have since brought cases in European courts against officials who would normally have escaped justice at home.

Pinochet may have eluded such a process in his lifetime but he is symbolic of the changed circumstances. He has to be held up as the last leader who was able to commit grave crimes and go unpunished.