Labour squirms: Butcher Pinochet faces justice

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The decision of the Law Lords to dismiss General Pinochet's claim to immunity from prosecuation and hence from extradition to Spain has created a political crisis for the Labour government. Only those without a shred of humanity could fail to be delighted at the decision, particularly since it was so unexpected. The police were all ready to whisk him from his private hospital to a plane waiting at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire which would take him back to Chile. He himself was ready to go as the first two of five Law Lords who were ruling on his case announced their decision in his favour. All he needed was one more - but he never got it. The pity is of course that he will not have to sit inside a prison - he will be granted bail whatever happens to his case. Vile British neo-fascist friends of his are raising money to rent him a luxurious London home. But he will not escape the daily pickets wherever he stays, pickets that have tormented him since his arrest on 16 October.

Ruling class dilemmas

The split decision of the Law Lords reflects real dilemmas facing the British ruling class. The US has leaned heavily on Labour to allow Pinochet to leave the country because a court case in Spain would reveal in all its detail US involvement in the 1973 coup (see Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 144), and its support for the brutal and bloody regime that Pinochet imposed. It would expose why the US took no action when the Chilean secret police, DINA, set off a car bomb in the middle of Washington in 1976, killing Orlando Letelier, the Chilean ambassador to the US during the Allende years. In addition, it would demonstrate the full extent of US support for the wave of military regimes that were established in Latin America during the late 1970s, since the Spanish case against Pinochet includes his participation in Operation Condor, a conspiracy between these regimes to co-operate in international state terrorism, kidnapping and torture. It has been an unspoken rule that imperialism's henchmen can retire to live in peace when their job is done.

Yet there are other considerations as well. Spain is not the only country seeking Pinochet's extradition; Switzerland, Sweden and Belgium are, and it is expected France and Germany will join the queue. Baltasar Garzon, the Spanish judge who has led the investigation into Pinochet, is also in charge of the case against Kenneth Noye, wanted in Britain for the 'road rage' murder of Stephen Cameron two years ago. Does Labour satisfy its European partners? Or will it concede to the US? In the end what will matter are British imperialism's global interests, which will be measured not in terms of legal niceties, but in sterling. On the debit side already is the likely loss of the sale of three surplus frigates to the Chilean navy, worth £60 million.

Ruling class hypocrisy

The whole Pinochet episode has revealed the utter hypocrisy of the British ruling class and its political representatives, whether Tory or Labour. Since stepping down as Chile's head of state in 1990, he has made at least five visits to Britain, mainly to buy arms. The most recent was in October 1997. The Labour Government was informed of his visit well in advance, but, despite Robin Cook's newly-announced 'ethical' foreign policy, made no attempt to stop him from entering the country. Nor did it make any attempt to prevent Pinochet's visit this time round, even though France had already refused him entry. Labour were quite happy with the status quo and the accompanying arms sales, until the Spaniards upset it.

Once Pinochet was detained, the imperialist lie machine swung into action. One of the first to condemn the move was Margaret Thatcher, a great friend and supporter of Pinochet. She contrasted Pinochet's treatment with that of Argentinian president Carlos Menem, who was due in Britain the following week. Pinochet, she said, had been a 'good friend' of Britain during the Falklands War, continuing 'it is disgraceful to preach reconciliation with one (Menem), while maintaining under arrest someone who during that conflict did so much to save so many British lives.' She went on to justify Pinochet's brutality by asserting 'there were abuses of human rights in Chile and acts of violence on both sides of the divide'. Undoubtedly Chile did support British imperialism during the Malvinas war - it was an open secret at the time that it provided bases for SAS operations. But this was because Chile and Argentina had nearly been to war in the previous period over disputed territory in the South, in the potentially oil-rich Beagle Channel area. As to the 'human rights' abuses under Allende, these were a complete (if convenient) fiction.

Whitewashing Pinochet

However, for the Tories and the right-wing press, Pinochet had become a martyr, and any amount of lying was acceptable to press their case. Pinochet's detention was an unwarranted intrusion into the internal affairs of Chile. The people had democratically voted for the settlement which left him untouched in his own country as a senator for life. Despite some unfortunate 'excesses', he had given the country economic and political stability. All this is a complete whitewash.

Under Pinochet, over 4,000 people were disappeared or murdered. The 'free market' experiment that he supervised in the late 1970s resulted in near-bankruptcy by 1983. The previous year had seen Chilean GDP fall by nearly 20%, and unemployment reach 22%. Under the direction of Milton Friedman, arch exponent of neo-liberalism, and the so-called 'Chicago Boys', his Chilean disciples, the minimum wage was abolished, union bargaining outlawed, public employment slashed, 212 industries and 66 banks privatised. The conglomerates that took them over used them as collateral to obtain huge loans. In 1982, they collapsed. The Chilean people took to the streets as two-fifths of them faced starvation. Pinochet did a U-turn, re-nationalising industries, in particular copper, and embarking on a programme of public expenditure. What finally rescued the economy was the export-led boom of the late 1980s, itself dependent on a temporary upturn in world economic conditions creating a demand for Chilean copper and agricultural produce. The 1988 settlement which effectively gave Pinochet internal immunity was not the result of a free vote: it was the maximum the armed forces were prepared to concede at the time.

Even today, Chilean democracy remains a threadbare velvet glove over the mailed fist of the Chilean armed forces. Detention and torture of socialists and communists continue, as does the persecution of the Mapuche aboriginal population. This is supervised by a coalition which includes Foreign Minister Ricardo Lagos, a Chilean Tony Blair, and touted as the first 'socialist' president since Allende. The idea that Pinochet's detention would undermine the Chilean settlement demonstrates its complete lack of popular support.

'International law' and 'sovereign states'

The original High Court judgement, which ruled that Pinochet had immunity for acts he committed as head of state, flew in the face of international law as it has developed since the Second World War. Lord Bingham, in passing judgement, stated that nothing invalidated the principle 'that one sovereign state will not impede another in relation to its sovereign acts....The applicant is entitled to immunity as a former sovereign from the criminal and civil process of the English court.' In other words, all acts of a sovereign or head of state are 'official acts' and therefore covered by immunity. The willingness to use this approach of course reflected a deep desire by sections of British imperialism to show faith to a favoured butcher.

However, the judgement ignored the Nuremburg principle, that 'immunity did not apply to acts condemned as criminal by international law'. Pinochet would have immunity for acts undertaken whilst exercising the functions of a head of state. But international conventions, now part of English law, do not recognise kidnapping, torture or murder as functions or 'official acts' of a head of state. The three Law Lords who ruled against Pinochet were doing no more than upholding international law as it currently stands, which overrides the doctrine of immunity for such acts.

In the end, of course, the attitude of imperialism towards international law is one of expediency. Britain sold arms to Saddam Hussein even as he was waging a war of genocide against the Kurds. It ignored demands for sanctions against apartheid South Africa, and condoned its illegal occupation of Namibia. It evicted the indigenous people from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and turned it into a military base for the US. All this was against 'international law'. However, the Law Lords' decision has opened a can of worms which Labour would far rather not deal with. It also offers the delightful prospect of Margaret Thatcher being arrested in relation to the sinking of the Belgrano if she is unfortunate in the choice of countries she tries to enter.

Straw's choice

Right from the outset there have been rumours that Straw would use his discretion as Home Secretary to release Pinochet. As a Christian, he can draw comfort from Archbishop Carey, who at an early stage urged that 'our government will pay attention to the personal aspects of this... and be compassionate in this situation.' The law allows him to send Pinochet back on the next plane to Chile, and there is no doubt he would dearly love to. At the minimum, it would prevent the loss of millions of pounds of arms orders. But it would create an enormous diplomatic row with European governments. It would render his political position untenable - tough on anti-social behaviour, tough on child criminals, tough on asylum seekers, soft on mass murderers. So, whilst we rejoice in Pinochet's discomfort, let us also celebrate Jack Straw's as well. In the end, he may send Pinochet back, but at least it will be the political equivalent of falling on his sword.

Robert Clough
*This article was updated on 7 September 2017

FRFR 146 Dec 1998 / Jan 1999