Pinochet's European vacation

On October 16, 1998, London police arrested General Pinochet on a warrant from a Spanish judge for h

In the ten years since, the world has become a smaller place for brutal despots. Indeed, today a former dictator accused of thousands of killings and “disappearances,” as Pinochet was, wouldn’t even think of a European vacation.

The arrest and the subsequent decisions by the British House of Lords to reject Pinochet’s claim of immunity were a wake-up call to tyrants everywhere, but more important, they gave hope to victims elsewhere that they too could bring their tormentors to justice.

In country after country, particularly in Latin America, victims were inspired to challenge the transitional arrangements of the 1980s and 1990s that had allowed the perpetrators of atrocities to go unpunished and, often, to remain in power. Thanks to these efforts, former leaders in Argentina, Peru and Uruguay face human rights trials.

Pinochet's arrest also strengthened a nascent international movement - spurred by the killings in Bosnia and Rwanda, and facilitated by the end of the Cold War - to make certain the worst abuses are punished.

After the creation of UN tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the world established the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and serious war crimes when national courts are unable or unwilling to do so.

The ICC is now investigating crimes in Darfur, the Central African Republic, Uganda and Congo, and in July its prosecutor requested the indictment of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan on charges of genocide in Darfur. That bold request touched off a firestorm that underlines the two great challenges facing international justice today.

The first is the so-called “peace v justice” dichotomy. Because the ICC does not recognize immunity for heads of state, it can intervene while perpetrators are still in power in an effort to prevent further crimes.

But some have argued that an indictment of Bashir will make him less inclined to respond to diplomatic efforts to negotiate peace. . A similar argument was made when the ICC indicted Ugandan rebel leaders.

Yet if there is strong international support, the Bashir indictment may also force a close examination of his responsibility, as did previous indictments of sitting rulers – Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia and Charles Taylor of Liberia.

And it is precisely the total absence of accountability that has allowed the brutality in Darfur to continue for so long. A move in the United Nations Security Council to suspend the ICC case in Darfur in return for unenforceable promises by Bashir to facilitate peacekeeping would be a sorry capitulation in the face of atrocity.

Another challenge is the sentiment, propagated by many African leaders, that African rulers accused of crimes are ensnared in the web of international justice while the leaders of more powerful states go free.

Unfortunately, it can’t be denied that a double standard does exist. What is the likelihood that US leaders will be brought to book for the crimes they authorized at Guantanamo and the archipelago of secret prisons around the world? Or that Russian officials will be called to account for war crimes in Chechnya?

This inequity, entrenched by military muscle and a Security Council veto, makes it easy for cynical rulers of less powerful countries to tar attempts to prosecute crimes against humanity as “political” or “neo-colonial.” But delivering justice to African victims is a positive goal, not a negative one. And the main reason why Africa dominates the ICC docket is that the continent continues to be ravaged by war and atrocity, which its justice systems are unable to address.

An important test case for “African justice” is that of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, exiled in Senegal and accused of massive crimes during his 1982-1990 rule. In 2006, the African Union called on Senegal to prosecute Habré "on behalf of Africa." If Senegal can give Habré a speedy and fair trial, Africa could begin to shake off its judicial dependence.

Ten years down the road, the debates still rage, but two things are certain: Victims have been empowered to seek redress. And leaders are on notice: if they try to get away with murder and torture, they could be brought to justice.

Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch directed the groups’ intervention in the Pinochet case and is author of 'The Pinochet Precedent'.