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Long arm of law gets longer

Henry Kissinger argues in the Los Angeles Times for "a serious effort" to bring down Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Sen. Richard Lugar says in The Washington Post that "a serious program for democratic changes" is needed to replace Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. In polite company, assassination is not discussed. But these essays reflect a sense of frustration with dictators who rule by violence and thumb their noses at the civilized world. Perhaps that is why it created such a sensation when one tyrant's misdeeds belatedly caught up with him. In a ground-breaking action, Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile was arrested in Britain on mass murder charges brought by Spain. And Home Secretary Jack Straw has ruled he must face extradition.

"Justice without borders," a Spanish newspaper called it. The British court ruled that immunity for a former head of state didn't cover crimes against humanity.

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It was a rare event. Mostly retired tyrants do not face justice. Pol Pot of the killing fields of Cambodia was captured by government forces, but died of natural causes. Idi Amin of Uganda lives undisturbed in Saudi Arabia. "Baby Doc" Duvalier of Haiti in southern France.

While war crimes prosecution has been a settled concept since Nuremberg, the idea of facing justice for peacetime crimes against humanity is relatively new.

US presidents have had their own ways of trying to dispose of dictators who bothered them. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy presided over assassination plots against Fidel Castro. President Reagan hoped Muammar Qaddafi might be hit in the Tripoli bombing. President Bush had similar hopes for Saddam in the bombing of Baghdad.

It is ironic that, with all the resources at their command, no president (as far as known) has succeeded in eliminating a hostile dictator. When it comes to nabbing a tyrant, legal process may accomplish what a B-52 can't. But, when the history of third-world tyranny is written, there will be some embarrassment for the US. It's with patent uneasiness that the Clinton administration agreed to release some secret files on kidnapping, murder, and torture during the Pinochet rule.

It's long been known the Nixon administration was complicit in events leading to the 1973 toppling of President Salvador Allende. Less well known was that US intelligence and military agencies maintained close liaison with the Pinochet secret police and were at least aware of the killing of 3,000 suspected dissidents.

The declassified documents may also shed light on the 1976 car bombing in Washington that killed former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier, and his American friend, Ronni Moffit.

It is known that US diplomats in Santiago sent protests to Washington about the activities of the Pinochet regime, but they were generally ignored. It will be interesting if some of their dispatches are released now. It seems inconceivable, on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Human Rights Declaration, that the US could've condoned such abuses.

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But that is one of the legacies of the cold war, when repression by reliably anticommunist rulers was generally excused in the name of containing the global foe. That legacy helps to explain why, along with Iraq and Libya, the Clinton administration opposes the treaty creating an international criminal court. If human rights accusations can reach across borders to nab an aging South American tyrant in England, then how safe is, say, Henry Kissinger?

It's noteworthy that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was reportedly one of the those who pressed for release of the Chilean files. Her spokesman, James Rubin, said, "We believe in accountability, and we are heartened by calls for accountability in Chile."

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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