October 15, 1999
Future leaders are on notice: If they try to get away with murder and torture, they could be brought to justice.
Reed Brody, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch

In the year since the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, the world has become a smaller place for people who are accused of committing atrocities.

Just ask Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri. In August the top aide to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein fled Austria, where he was in a hospital, to elude a private criminal complaint citing his alleged role in Iraq's genocide against the Kurds. "From now on all Iraqi officials will have to choose countries like Russia or China for medical treatment," cautioned one Arab diplomat.

Even those countries don't seem safe enough to former Ethiopian strongman Mengistu Haile Mariam, who has been hiding out in Zimbabwe under the protection of President Robert Mugabe after the downfall of his "Red Terror" regime. With Mugabe's rule looking shaky itself, Mengistu, who is wanted back home for the murder of more than 200,000 people, has reportedly visited isolated North Korea to explore retirement options.

He might also consider Saudi Arabia, which is providing sanctuary and a stipend for former dictator Idi Amin of Uganda. When asked about the possibility of Amin's extradition, a Saudi ambassador explained to Human Rights Watch that Bedouin hospitality meant that once someone was welcomed as a guest in your tent, you did not turn him out.

But recently other countries have not laid out the welcome mat for accused torturers. In July, French police arrested a Mauritanian colonel, Ely Ould Dah, for allegedly torturing prisoners in his country. Indonesia's ailing former ruler, Suharto, reportedly canceled a trip to Germany for treatment for fear of the "Pinochet precedent."

Indeed, the arrest of Pinochet, like the indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic by the United Nations war crimes tribunal, shows how far we have come from the days when despots could terrorize their own populations, secure in the knowledge that they would never be brought to book.

Until recently, it seemed that if you killed one person, you went to jail, but if you slaughtered thousands, you usually got away with it.

Times change, however. The twin genocides of the 1990s in Bosnia and Rwanda seem to have given the rest of the world -- which did nothing to prevent them -- a guilty conscience, and the United Nations Security Council, freed from its Cold War paralysis, created tribunals to judge the perpetrators of those ghastly events.

The genocides also boosted another idea designed to place much of the world off-limits to traveling tyrants: a permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) to judge future atrocities when national courts are unwilling or unable to do so. A remarkable coalition of nations - - from Europe to new democracies in South Africa, South Korea, Argentina, and Chile -- backed the ICC at final negotiations last July in Rome.

The United States delegation, adamant that Americans not be subjected to justice that Washington couldn't control, tried strenuously to weaken the court. One unfortunate result is that the ICC -- which still needs 60 ratifications before it begins to work --will generally not have jurisdiction over tyrants whose own countries do not ratify the court's statute. That could make the Pinochet precedent even more critical in the years ahead.

Under international law, any state may prosecute persons who commit genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity, no matter where the crime took place. Indeed, the UN Torture Convention, enacted precisely to deny suspected torturers any safe haven, requires that states investigate or extradite alleged torturers who enter their territories. The Torture Convention provided the basis for Britain's arrest of Pinochet and France's arrest of Ely Ould Dah.

Pinochet's arrest awakened the hopes of victims around the world, many of whom are now exploring how to use foreign courts to bring their tormentors to justice. Such extraterritorial prosecutions test the political will of the countries involved. In the Pinochet case, Britain's Home Secretary Jack Straw twice made the diplomatically costly decision to allow Spain's extradition bid to proceed, while Spain itself faces reprisals from its Latin partners. By contrast, Austria's decision to allow Izzat Ibrahim to fly home cynically placed relations with Iraq above the dictates of the law.

But precedents are being set. Augusto Pinochet was the first former head of state to be arrested by another country for human rights crimes. He will not be the last. Slobodan Milosevic was the first sitting head of state to be indicted for human rights crimes. He will not be the last. Future leaders are on notice: If they try to get away with murder and torture, they could be brought to justice. And if they have already tortured, they should not travel.