(New York) - Human Rights Watch today called on the House of Lords to follow international law in its decision on extraditing former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Last week, the British High Court cited the State Immunity Act of 1978 in rejecting Spain's request to extradite Pinochet. But the court's ruling contradicts a growing international consensus that no one should enjoy impunity for crimes against humanity.

"A growing number of states are willing to apply international law at home," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch in New York. "It's high time for Britain to do the same. The House of Lords needs to be on the right side of history."

Human Rights Watch, the largest human rights organization based in the United States, is presenting a written intervention to the House of Lords, showing that international law offers no immunity for perpetrators of the gravest human rights crimes, no matter who they are or where they are.

Roth noted that Britain adheres to several treaties, conventions, and international customary laws that contradict the State Immunity Act. They include the Genocide Convention, the Convention Against Torture, and the precedents established by various war crimes tribunals.

Fifty years ago, the Nuremberg trials established the principle of no sovereign immunity for crimes against humanity.

Currently, heads of state do not enjoy immunity at the two war crimes tribunals set up by the United Nations in 1993 and 1994. The ex-prime minister of Rwanda, Jean Kambanda, could not use sovereign immunity to avoid prosecution for genocide: he pled guilty before the Rwanda tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania. Nor could Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, if he is indicted, claim immunity before the Yugoslav tribunal in The Hague.

Britain has strongly supported the same principle for the new international criminal court. In four years of negotiations on the court, there was absolutely no debate over immunity for heads of state. The founding treaty, concluded in Rome this summer, explicitly states that the official position of the accused is irrelevant to a prosecution. Britain was among the 120 nations who voted for the treaty; only seven voted against.

Judges in the United States have rejected the idea that gross violations of human rights are covered by sovereign immunity. In cases dealing with former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, U.S. federal courts have ruled that sovereign immunity does not apply to prosecutions for "criminal acts."

Several countries, including Canada and Belgium, have passed "enabling" legislation to make it easier for their courts to try people accused of human rights crimes committed anywhere in the world.

Some European countries have already asked for Pinochet's extradition. Victims of Pinochet's crimes from several countries, assisted by Human Rights Watch and others, are petitioning the European Court of Human Rights to prevent the former dictator's return to Chile even if the House of Lords upholds the High Court's ruling.