Gut wrenching

The 1970s student generation now in power assumed that Pinochet was a synonym for infamy. They had to think again
December 20, 1998

It is a saga worthy of a novelist like Gabriel Garc?­a Marquez: the sick tyrant in the autumn of his years, checking into a London clinic only to find himself under arrest in his hospital bed; and the families of his victims crying for justice beneath his window. There is much to savour in this story, for the tyrant made the kind of human mistake we usually find in novels. He was not satisfied to have held power and done bloody deeds; he was not content with escaping the judgement of his people and the revenge of his enemies. All of this might have been enough for another man. What he wanted was historical vindication. He felt cruelly misjudged; he could not bear the forced anonymity of his travels. Even though Margaret Thatcher gave him tea, he knew he was loathed. This he could not bear. So in September, he called in the interviewer from the New Yorker and, in the course of holding forth, appealed to history to absolve him. Even more characteristic was the picture which duly appeared, showing him in a pose of almost majestic effrontery. To pose for such a picture was to make a mistake compounded of blinding vanity and wounded pride. The dateline of the photograph was a London clinic. As a military man, he should have known better than to reveal his hiding place.

But a novelist would also savour the next phase: how, having made such a mistake, he would then, even from a hospital bed, fight with such tenacity to escape the furies of vengeance. Such lack of resignation, such ferocious grip on life, would seem admirable in anyone else. A memorable battle ensued between a wounded predator and an entire generation which, as Peter Mandelson put it, would find it "gut wrenching" that he should escape justice.

The generation which had been students when he was in power was now in power itself. Here was another irony for a novelist to savour: this generation assumed that his name was a synonym for infamy, only to discover that Pinochet meant nothing to the generation just behind. These were the 20 and 30-year olds who learned about politics from those admirers of strong and ruthless men: Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan. So Pinochet's arrest was a rude reckoning with the passage of time, a generation in power's first coming to terms with the fact that memory inexorably turns into history, and as it does, it passes from passionate certainty into the pale shadow of doubt.

It was an article of faith with the generation of Blair, Clinton and Schr?der-the ones who knew what Pinochet stood for-that there should be no hiding place for tyrants, no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity. This was supposed to be the lesson of Nuremberg. Yet there is no such lesson-at least not as a British High Court judge read the evidence. The old tyrant benefited not only from diplomatic immunity, as a Chilean senator, but from "state immunity." He could not be extradited or tried for offences committed while he was head of state. Nuremberg, the British judge ruled, did not overturn the principle that "one sovereign state will not impugn another in relation to its sovereign acts." Put the old dictator on trial either in Britain or in Spain, the judge warned, and a US president could be indicted for ordering war crimes; Queen Elizabeth could be tried-presumably in Ireland-for offences committed by British soldiers in Northern Ireland. Lawyers weighed in with other worrying precedents: ordinary citizens who ran over someone in Libya, Iraq or Lebanon could face extradition to foreign jails.

As the old general fought to hold on to the life and freedom he had denied to others, the hopeful liberal certainties of a radical generation, now thrust into power, were being whittled away by this malign alliance between ageing tyranny and English legalism. Of course legal niceties matter, because the letter of the law protects a dictator one day and an innocent victim the next. But in this case, the reading of the Nuremberg precedent seemed to flout not only the letter but the spirit of the law. Article 7 of the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal explicitly declares that "the official position of defendants," including heads of state, "shall not be considered as freeing them from responsibility or mitigating punishment." If Pinochet walks out of his clinic, who else, by analogy, walks free with him? Will we now see Karadzic taking his chances with a trip to a Swiss clinic?

It is dispiriting that bad men should use good law to defeat justice. It is also embittering when good arguments are used to defend bad tyrants. The good argument is that it is up to the Chilean people, not the wider world, to settle with Pinochet. Geoffrey Howe, former foreign secretary, urged this course in a letter to The Times. To extradite Pinochet, to try him in a foreign court, Spanish or British, would be to intervene in a process of coming to terms with the past which properly belongs to the Chileans alone. It opens ancient wounds; it destabilises the democratic transition; it even signals to other dictators around the world that they should "shoot it out in the end" rather than negotiate their way-like Pinochet, like FW de Klerk-to a peaceful end.

Many democratic Chileans-although not Pinochet's victims-agree. The Chilean foreign minister said that the last thing a democratic Chile needed was to hand the Chilean right wing a martyr and cause c?l?bre.

It is true that societies can only be healed when they author their own justice and reconciliation. The Germans themselves came to terms with Nazism, not with Nuremberg, but only when their own courts brought convictions, when German justice faced up to German crime. Certainly it is up to South Africa to heal its own wounds and to figure out what to do with the poisoned chalice of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report. Outsiders who criticised both Chile and South Africa for sacrificing justice to truth, for failing to put the Pinochets and de Klerks behind bars, do not understand the political balance of forces which forced transitional democracies to make deals with outgoing tyrannies.

Equally, it is plain that democratic Chile would have put Pinochet on trial for his crimes, if he had not kept his fist on the levers of terror. Democracy was forced to compromise with tyranny, because tyranny still held on to the guns. This is the truth which the apologists for Pinochet and the "successful transition" in Chile wilfully obscure. Chile made its peace with Pinochet but only on terms which he dictated.

In London, a Spanish judge's extradition warrant is giving Pinochet's victims a second and final chance to seek justice on terms that the ageing tyrant does not himself dictate. This is the issue: should tyrants be able to use their power to dictate their legacy? This brings us back to where we started: because it was the dictator's vanity, his desire to go to his grave with the historical record "corrected" and the public memory of his crimes effaced, which led to his cover being blown. But even if he escapes this time, he will not succeed. Whether he escapes justice or not, he will not escape the vengeance of memory. In the past few weeks, the generations who knew nothing of his crimes have learned again what the word Pinochet stands for. And the absolution he was seeking when he posed for that photograph, when he gave that vain interview, will be denied him. When, in the fullness of time, death comes to the patriarch, shame and obloquy will be shovelled on to his coffin.