The image of Augusto Pinochet sweating it out before a British bobby is so startling that it takes some effort to grasp the full implications. At first sight, this strange turn of events puts every once-and-future dictator on notice - there will be no statute of limitation on the kind of torture and murder committed by Mr. Pinochet's forces in Chile 25 years ago. If anything, the passage of time has sharpened the wounds, and the need for justice. It often happens that way.
As if in recognition, international law has expanded greatly in the intervening period. Disappearances are now considered "crimes against humanity" instead of an internal affair by several international instruments. The international convention on torture requires that all states' parties are obligated to prosecute or extradite torturers - wherever they may be found. Two war-crimes tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia have won convictions for genocide and reaffirmed the principle that commanders have responsibility for the acts of their subordinates.
Increasingly, we see lawyers seizing their chances. Pinochet has been hounded by two Spanish judges who are investigating the murder of Spanish nationals after the 1973 coup in Chile. There's a similar tale of persistence in Argentina, where a local judge recently jailed Jorge Videla, head of the military junta that ordered the disappearance of thousands of Argentinians in the 1970s. The judge is trying to track down 300 infants who were born in captivity, and he holds Mr. Videla responsible for their fate.
But note that all the attacks against these former dictators are being made by lawyers - not politicians. In Argentina and Chile, politicians shrink from confronting the armed forces, which are still powerful - that's why Pinochet is a senator for life in Chile.
Politicians get little encouragement at the international level. The Dayton agreement on Bosnia called for the prosecution of war criminals and barred indicted war criminals from standing in elections. But NATO hasn't followed through, and the two worst offenders - Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb leaders - are still at large, poisoning hopes of reconciliation.
Look, too, at the current mayhem in Kosovo. The agreement recently negotiated by Richard Holbrooke calls for monitors to oversee a withdrawal of Serbian forces and the return of Albanian refugees to their homes. But it does not call for an investigation of several massacres that have been documented by human rights groups - notwithstanding the mandate of The Hague tribunal clearly covering Kosovo.
So where does America stand on all of this? Earlier this year in Rome, the international community voted to create an international criminal court. Already, 55 governments have committed to the ICC, suggesting that ratification might come sooner than expected. But not for the United States. The US was one of only seven governments to oppose the ICC in Rome, fearful that the court might be used against Americans. The US is now campaigning actively to dilute and redraft the key provisions.
All this sends a decidedly mixed message to those once-and-future dictators. Some may wince at Pinochet's discomfort. But others will just shrug their shoulders. Having ignored the law for so long why should they start now? And who's to make them?
* Iain Guest worked for the UN in Cambodia and Haiti. He is the author of 'Behind the Disappearances - Argentina's dirty war on human rights and the United Nations.' (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).