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National Justice Efforts

Some have questioned whether it is appropriate for international prosecutions to replace national justice systems. But that concern reflects a misunderstanding. The purpose of creating an option of international justice is to establish a backstop for national efforts. By making clear that violence or intimidation aimed at national judges and prosecutors no longer guarantees impunity, the option of international justice bolsters national justice systems. The International Criminal Court was built explicitly on these terms, and events in 2000 showed that the emergence of international tribunals has had precisely this catalyzing effect.

Britain's October 1998 arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet would almost certainly not have taken place before the ICC treaty changed the environment for international justice. In March 2000, the British government released Pinochet on health grounds after almost seventeen months in detention. He returned to a Chile that had been transformed by his arrest. In August, in a step that would have been unthinkable before his detention in Britain, the Chilean Supreme Court stripped him of his parliamentary immunity, allowing prosecution to proceed for his role in a notorious episode of execution and "disappearance" immediately following his 1973 coup.

Similarly, after the September 1999 rampage of Indonesian-backed militia in East Timor, the U.N. launched a commission of inquiry. In January 2000, the commission recommended the establishment of an international tribunal. Kofi Annan declined to endorse this recommendation so long as the Indonesian government upheld its vow to bring the abusers to justice on its own -- a step it had no previous history of taking. In August, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson reminded Jakarta that she would call for an international tribunal if it did not proceed with prosecutions. In September, the government published a list of nineteen suspects involved in the East Timor rampage, though by late October the prospect of actual prosecutions remained distant.

Interestingly, in one case a nationally based prosecutorial effort may precede action by an international tribunal, suggesting a complementary relationship. The international war crimes tribunal for Rwanda has jurisdiction not only over atrocities associated with the 1994 genocide but also over crimes committed at the time by the Rwandan Patriotic Front -- the dominant force in the current Rwandan government. The RPF's military victory in June 1994 ended the genocide, but the Tutsi-led force committed serious abuses in the process. The Rwanda tribunal has issued no indictments for the RPF's crimes -- a failure that is often attributed to its need to maintain good relations with the Rwandan government so it can retain access to the country to conduct investigations and secure witnesses for the genocide trials. In August 2000, a Belgian prosecutor began investigating a complaint of war crimes and crimes against humanity filed against the RPF by a group of Rwandans. This initiative may hasten similar action by the Rwanda tribunal.

Southern Initiatives
Some critics of efforts to hold human rights abusers accountable for their crimes have suggested that justice is a parochial concern of Northern governments which is imposed on the people of the South. But the events of 2000 demonstrated that Southern governments are also eager to pursue the most heinous human rights criminals -- that the quest for justice does not break down on hemispheric lines.

  • In February, in an echo of the Pinochet case, a Senegalese court, acting at the request of Chadian victims, indicted former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré for torture and ordered his arrest. Habré had taken refuge in Senegal following the fall of his dictatorship in 1990. In July 2000, in a blow to judicial independence, an appellate court dismissed the indictment after the new Senegalese government of President Abdoulaye Wade removed the judge investigating the case and promoted the head of the judicial chamber that issued the reversal ruling. The dismissal is on appeal to the country's Supreme Court.

  • In October, an Argentine judge asked Chile to extradite Pinochet and others for the 1974 assassination of General Carlos Prats and his wife, Sofia Cuthbert. Prats, the former commander-in-chief of the Chilean armed forces, had opposed Pinochet's 1973 coup and taken refuge in Buenos Aires with his family. The judge also sought the extradition of other Chileans in the case, including the former chief of Chile's secret police, Manuel Contreras Sepúlveda, who is in prison in Chile for having carried out a 1974 car-bombing in Washington that took the life of another coup opponent, former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier, and his assistant, Ronni Moffitt.

  • Also in October, Vladimiro Montesinos, the shadowy intelligence figure behind the authoritarian government of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, unsuccessfully sought political asylum (effective amnesty) in Panama. Panama had evidently tired of being the world's dumping ground for deposed dictators and their accomplices. Montesinos, who had been responsible for forming and supervising a death squad in the early 1990s among other abuses, beat a hasty retreat to Peru.

  • In August, acting upon a Spanish request, Mexico arrested Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, an accused torturer for the 1976-83 Argentine military junta. Cavallo had been living in Mexico.

These and other cases demonstrate an increasingly global effort -- involving governments of the North and South -- to bring abusive officials to justice. The trend is still at a rudimentary stage, but it is clearly working against the impunity that so many ruthless officials enjoyed. This smaller world may make tomorrow's dictators think twice before embarking on the path of slaughter taken by their predecessors.


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