As the world prepares to commemorate and reflect on the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania on 11 September 2001, it is equally important to do the same for the ‘other’ 9/11: the military coup in 1973 that ousted democratically elected Salvador Allende, which brought General Augusto Pinochet to power.
Human Rights in Chile
Over the last 40 years Chile has experienced a pattern in the violation of civil and political rights that was relatively severe in the early years of the Pinochet regime, that modulated from outright killings and disappearances in the 1970s to arbitrary detention and torture in the 1980s, to dramatic improvements in human rights protection after the 1988 plebiscite and throughout the period of democratic consolidation in the 1990s.
The consolidation of authoritarian rule in Chile under the leadership of President Pinochet was achieved relatively quickly through a series of Constitutional Acts combined with the creation of an increasingly powerful internal security agency (most notably the National Intelligence Directorate, Direcciòn de Inteligencia Nacional, DINA), which was built on an initially highly repressive set of policies that led to widespread extra-judicial killings, exile, disappearances, torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment often carried out in secret.
The repression brought with it initially an attempt to document human rights abuses most notably by the Vicariate of Solidarity (Vicária de la Solidaridad) followed by increasing forms of social mobilization, which peaked during the economic crisis of the early 1980s and were subsequently quashed with by the declaration of various states of siege between 1984 and 1987.
Social mobilisation returned to Chile with the 1988 Plebiscite as support for the ‘No’ Campaign grew, and the 1989 democratic transition was relatively peaceful and brought with it a dramatic decrease in human rights abuse. Continued contestation over social policy, indigenous rights, educational issues among others have produced some repression but nothing compared to the policies of the Pinochet regime between 1973 and 1990.
As part of the military’s extraction from power, Pinochet remained the head of the military until 1997, was pronounced ‘Senator for Life’, and the military guaranteed itself a percentage of foreign exchange to fund its on-going activities. These and other factors infuriated the victims of Pinochet’s time in power and significantly undermined any attempts by the new democratically elected Aylwin government to move the process of reconciliation forward.
The politics after the authoritarian regime were such that any attempt at pursuing prosecutions was not possible. Rather, Aylwin apologised on behalf of the previous regime and focused on reparations for the victims; a policy that he saw was dedicated to providing truth and ‘as much justice as possible’. Absence of official state prosecution of military and security personnel alleged to have been responsible for human rights abuse during the Pinochet years meant that many victims sought redress through the civil courts. Indeed, there were approximately 750 private prosecutions against army, police, air force and naval officers. On balance, however, the immediate post-Pinochet years saw an acknowledgement of human rights as an issue, but it was quickly downplayed and dissipated from dominating public discourse.
Detention in London
On 16 October 1998, British police, acting on an extradition request from Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón arrested and detained Pinochet, who had come to the UK for a back operation in a private hospital. His detention became relatively prolonged as he remained under house arrest for over a year and half, while the Law Lords debated the merits of his detention and more importantly the merits of the legal case against a former head of state accused of committing human rights abuses. Judge Baltasar Garzón argued that the state security apparatus under the command of Pinochet had committed human rights violations against Spanish citizens, and that since Britain and Spain were party to a bi-lateral extradition treaty, Pinochet could be detained to answer these charges in a Spanish court.
This inventive legal argument carried enough weight to lead the British authorities to detain Pinochet. The detention sent shockwaves around the world even before any resolution of the case. As Sikkink (2012: 121) notes, ‘[e]ven the most ardent advocates of accountability didn’t really believe such an arrest was feasible. The international lawyers knew it was legally possible, but no one believed it was politically possible.’ The political impossibility stemmed not only from friendly relations with Margaret Thatcher and political right in the UK, but Chile was a staunch ally for Britain in the 1983 Falklands/Malvinas war, and many believed that he had saved the Chilean economy from ruin (Roht-Arriaza 2005: 36)
Pinochet’s defence rested on his immunity from prosecution as a former head of state. Advocates for extradition and prosecution were based on a jus cogens argument that some crimes, such as torture are simply too egregious to ignore and the defendant cannot hide behind principles of diplomatic immunity. The deliberations in the House of Lords centred on all these legal questions.
The Law Lords agreed that torture is a special case of egregious crime, but the UK had only incorporated the principles found in the 1984 Convention on Torture in the Criminal Justice Act 1988, and thus could only focus on those crimes committed from 1988. While this much narrower focus (indeed, the year of the plebiscite) invalidated most of the original charges against Pinochet, the decision to extradite him to Spain could nevertheless be upheld. Significant contestation ensued about whether (a) he should be extradited to Spain (e.g. George Bush and Margaret Thatcher said no, human rights groups and Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said yes) or (b) he should be allowed to return to Chile. In the end, the decision rested with Home Secretary Jack Straw, who in March 2000 decided that for reasons of ill health, Pinochet should be permitted to return home.
Pinochet’s return home was met with outcry and dismay from many within the human rights community. It was politically expedient for both the New Labour Government in Britain and the Concertación Government of Eduardo Frei Ruíz-Tagle, since neither government wanted to be embroiled in a prolonged diplomatic and legal wrangle over the fate of the former dictator.
It is very telling now to observe the diplomatic rows over Julian Assange and his asylum in the Embassy of Ecuador and Edward Snowden and his asylum in Russia. Neither individual is a former dictator, nor have they committed crimes against humanity (some believe no crimes at all have been committed), but imagine the politics of extradition of a former head of state by Britain to a third country and then the trial of that head of state in the third country. Straw’s decision neatly avoided this scenario while at the same time upholding the decision to extradite. The short term dismay at not seeing the former dictator on trial in Spain was balanced against a longer term legal victory that many have argued is the most important in the field of international human rights and humanitarian law since the Nuremberg Trials.
The War on Terror
The irony of these developments is that at the same time that the Pinochet case was buttressing the human rights movement, well-established democracies in Europe and North America were passing anti-terror legislation that significantly undermined long-held rights commitments. For example, the Patriot Act in the United States and various anti-terror acts in the UK increased and centralised power in the executive branch, allowed for the indefinite detention of terror suspects without charge, and greatly enhanced the ability of governments to use stop and search powers and interfere with the private correspondence and financial activities of ordinary citizens suspected of being involved in terrorist activity (see Brysk and Shafir 2007).
The arguments for tightening security powers of the state since 9/11 are ominously the same as those used by the authoritarian regimes of the Southern Cone that were part of Operation Condor. Dubbed the “first war on terror,” the Condor Years lasted from 1973 to 1980, during which the military regimes of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia were arguably at their most brutal. The alliance sought to ‘track down “terrorists” of all nationalities, wherever they resided’ (Dinges 2004: 4), and an ‘extraordinary list of military and political leaders from the countries of southern South America lost their lives or were targeted for assassination’ (Dinges 2004: 1).
While the activities were initially limited to Latin American countries, from 1976 onwards, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay created multinational teams that carried out operations outside Latin America, including the Letelier bombing in Washington DC, and two other foreign assassination attempts. The post-9/11 ‘war on terror’ and its associated by-product of human rights abuse are eerily reflected in the Condor activities, where the hunt for subversion leads to the curbing of liberties, moral relativism, complete disregard for hard fought international standards, and the persistence of impunity.
The world’s main defenders of human rights and promoters of democracy have looked inward after 11 September 2001 and pursued security policies that continue to undermine the quality of democracy and the sanctity of human rights. The Abu Ghraib scandal, Guantánamo Bay, and the National Security Agency scandal (including the recent detention of David Miranda at Heathrow airport) all demonstrate that basic freedoms and rights require vigilance and defence against what appears to be easy authoritarian temptations (cf Revel 1978). While there have been quiet judicial revolutions in both the UK and US that are beginning to roll back the more draconian aspects of anti-terror policies, it would have been inconceivable before 9/11 to have imagined the kinds of events that have shocked the world.
The lessons from the Chile also important for the events that have unfolded in the ‘Arab Spring’ countries in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly the tumultuous events that have overtaken Egypt. I was struck by an extraordinary response to the military coup against Morsi that appeared in the Wall Street Journal:
Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy.
This quote aptly demonstrates not only a complete misreading of Chilean history and the period of Pinochet’s rule, but also the continuous need for human rights scholars and practitioners to document, research and struggle against the forces of oppression wherever they may appear in the world. In the event, the General Sisi period of rule in Egypt has also included the use of repression that is emblematic of the Pinochet years, where the 14 August 2013 clearing of pro-Morsi forces led to a large number of casualties at the hands of the Egyptian military. The lesson from these events in Egypt (like so many lessons in history) is very clear with respect to the article in the Wall Street Journal: be careful what you wish for.
The forty years between the two 9/11’s has seen many victories and setbacks for the cause of human rights. The continued development of the international human rights regime during this period has gone far beyond what was imaginable in the years immediately following the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But these many achievements have also seen many setbacks, as governments around the world trade rights for security and adopt the same logic in the face of threats.
On this 9/11, I am mindful of the ways in which history continues to repeat itself.
Brysk, A. and Shafir, G.(eds) (2007) National Insecurity and Human Rights: Democracies Debate Counterterrorism, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Dinges, John (2004) The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents, New York: The New Press
Joe Foweraker and Todd Landman (1997) Citizenship Rights and Social Movements: A Comparative and Statistical Analysis, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hawkins, Darren (2002) International Human Rights and Authoritarian Rule in Chile, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Landman, Todd (2013) Human Rights and Democracy: The Precarious Triumph of Ideals, London: Bloomsbury
Revel, Jean Francois (1978) The Totalitarian Temptation, New York: Penguin.
Roht-Arriaza, Noami (2005) The Pinochet Effect: Transnational Justice in the Age of Human Rights, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Sikkink, Kathryn (2011) The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics, New York: Norton.
 ‘After the Coup in Cairo,’ Wall Street Journal, 4 July 2010; http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324399404578583932317286550