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The Honorable Jack Straw
Secretary of State for the Home Department
50 Queen Anne's Gate
London SW1H 9AT

Dear Home Secretary:

Human Rights Watch, the largest United States-based international human rights organization, is writing to commend the United Kingdom for the October 16 arrest in London of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, military dictator of Chile between 1973 and 1990. Given the seriousness of the crimes committed by the Chilean military during those years, and the impunity enjoyed by the authorities responsible for the abuses, we fully support the Spanish legal action against General Pinochet. At the same time, we respectfully urge the British government to take all necessary remaining steps to facilitate the Spanish inquiry into the widespread and systematic human rights violations committed under General Pinochet's command.

The human rights violations committed by the military during the dictatorship must unequivocally be termed crimes against humanity. Chile's official National Truth and Reconciliation Commission confirmed that the Chilean military, acting under authority of General Pinochet, extrajudicially executed 1,068 people and "disappeared" another 957; soldiers systematically tortured detainees. The total number of people executed or disappeared by Chile's military government is likely to be much higher, given that the commission's figures correspond to the cases that could, on the basis of existing evidence, be definitively linked to authorities. Only an exhaustive judicial investigation could ascertain the full extent of the crimes against humanity committed during the seventeen years of military rule in Chile. Indeed, international law demands no less than the prosecution of those responsible for these abuses. Unfortunately, due in large part to an amnesty that the military granted itself in 1978, the Chilean justice system has failed to investigate or prosecute all but the rarest of cases.

Human Rights Watch strongly supports the Spanish effort to bring Chilean human rights violators to justice. Based on well-established international law and practice, the Spanish have the right to assert jurisdiction over cases in which Spanish nationals were victimized in Chile. However, given the nature of the crimes committed by the Chilean military-that they constitute crimes against humanity-cases of non-Spanish nationals can also be tried by Spanish courts. Since the Nuremberg trials, the principle of "universal jurisdiction" for crimes against humanity has been firmly established. This concept rests on the notion that all states have an interest in seeing that justice is done in such cases and possess authority to exercise jurisdiction, irrespective of any other link between the court and the alleged crime.

Human Rights Watch disagrees fundamentally with the Chilean government's claim that General Pinochet should benefit from diplomatic immunity because he traveled to London with a diplomatic passport. The general was not on diplomatic mission and was not participating in an official delegation in which diplomatic status would have been temporarily conferred. Indeed, the preamble to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, to which Chile is a party, clearly places the purpose of the convention within the context of work-related diplomatic activity, not personal business." It states, "[T]he purpose of such privileges and immunities is not to benefit individuals but to ensure the efficient performance of the functions of diplomatic missions as representing States." We understand that, as a courtesy, the Chilean government regularly provides diplomatic passports to members of the country's congress who travel abroad on official or personal business. In cases of personal travel with a diplomatic passport, however, the travel document may facilitate immigration and customs procedures but cannot be considered to change the diplomatic status of a non-diplomat.

Human Rights Watch applauds the British government's support of the Spanish court's inquiry into human rights violations committed by the military in Chile. The international community must stand ready to ensure that self-conferred impunity for human rights violations, however effective within national borders, does not hold sway internationally. Spain and the U.K. have given important practical effect to a longstanding principle-the perpetrator of crimes against humanity is like the pirate of olden days: he can be tried wherever he is found. We respectfully urge that British authorities take all necessary steps to continue in this regard.


José Miguel Vivanco 
Executive Director, Americas Division 

cc: Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Robin Cook
The Honorable Ambassador Mario Artaza

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