Lessons of 30 Years of a Transnational Struggle Against Impunity


The following thoughts were shared by Fabiola Letelier del Solar as closing remarks to the seminar "The Pinochet Case: Lessons of 30 Years of a Transnational Struggle Against Impunity," sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies (Washington D.C.) and FLACSO. The seminar took place November 14, 2003 at FLACSO in Santiago, Chile.

It is an honor for me that the organizers of this seminar - the Institute for Policy Studies and Flacso - have asked me to present the closing remarks for this important event. A great number of persons from international NGOs, academics of the United States and Chile, associations of relatives of the victims of repression, and human rights activists are here today united by a common mission: the permanent struggle against impunity in crimes against humanity committed during the military dictatorship.

We have exchanged experiences, reflected on the criminal acts that occurred; analyzed domestic and international law that should be respected; shared the pain suffered by the victims along with the unyielding determination of relatives to attain truth, justice and reparation. These activities should help redefine strategies of coordination to revitalize and broaden future actions of the transnational movement against impunity. Allow me to share a few thoughts on the subjects considered during the seminar.

In relation to the first panel discussion on human rights movement within and outside Chile, I would like to point out that after the coup; the relatives of the victims were the first to publicly denounce the human rights violations. The organized and filed complaints in the courts with legal assistance from the Pro Paz Committee, an ecumenical body, and later from the Vicariate of Solidarity and other human rights organizations such as FASIC and CODEPU, that arose in those years. Victims and their families filed thousands of habeas corpus writs and other legal actions in court despite the fact that the judicial branch, the only branch of government Pinochet allowed to function, was totally subservient to the military dictatorship. Their rights to truth and justice were denied through arbitrary and ineffective rulings. However, their efforts contributed to compilation of legal facts would play an important role in the future when objective and impartial judges again fulfilled the task assigned them by law, which is to ascertain facts, determine responsibilities and obtain the corresponding judicial sanction.

Parallel to the efforts on the legal plain, a broad social movement began to emerge that publicly repudiated the dictatorship. Persons found the courage to demand respect for the right to life, to physical integrity, and denounced the torture of and incommunicado status of thousands of political prisoners in Chile. In 1983, the social movement became national and massive. National protests decisively contributed to the democratic aperture that resulted later.

Alarmed by the continual human rights violations of Chileans and foreign residents in Chile, the international community responded immediately and effectively. The Organization of American States (OAS) through its Inter American Human Rights Commission, on September 14, 1973, accepted the petition of Amnesty International and the International Committee of Jurists. It decided to issue a Special Report, the first of four, on the annual assessment of human rights in Chile. The United Nations began supervisory activities with the appointment in 1975 of an ad hoc work group under the Human Rights Committee. From that year until January 1990, the UN maintained a Special Rapporteur for Chile, as the human rights situation did not improve.

The military dictatorship lent no credence to the international condemnation against it, reasoning that what occurred within the country's borders was off limits to outsiders. This meant that Chile also violated its international obligation to respect human rights, as inscribed in various multilateral treaties. The insistent condemnation of the UN and OAS was joined by the Russell Court denunciation of the military dictatorships of Brazil y Chile, as well as the celebrated Permanent People's Tribunal session of Bogota, Colombia in April 1991 that studied impunity in Latin America. Parliaments of democratic European and Latin American governments also expressed concern for the situation in Chile.

World condemnation of the Chilean dictatorship deepened after three acts of international terrorism planned in Chile and carried out by the DINA on foreign soil. First, the assassination on September 30, 1974 of General Carlos Prats, former Army Commander in Chief, and his wife in Buenos Aires; second, the frustrated attempt to assassinate former Vice President Bernardo Leighton and his wife in Rome in 1975; and third the assassination of Orlando Letelier on September 21, 1976 in the capital of the United States.

After recovery of democratically elected governments, two developments captured world interest. The first was the international trial initiated in 1996 in Spain's Audiencia Nacional, that accused both military and civilian members of the Junta of genocide, international terrorism and torture, in which 3000 Chileans became parties to the complaint. The second landmark event was Pinochet's arrest during 504 days in London, sought by Judge Baltasar Garzon. While Britain finally agreed to Spain's extradition request, Home Secretary Jack Straw eventually permitted the former dictator to return home in light of alleged humanitarian considerations, pleaded by the Chilean government headed by Eduardo Frei.

Upon his return to Chile, Pinochet faced approximately 500 complaints filed against him in court. Although the Supreme Court accepted to deprive him of congressional immunity as lifetime senator in order to bring Pinochet to trial in the Caravan of Death case, it finally invoked as extenuating circumstance his alleged demented condition thus avoiding a trial for the murders of 78 persons. This is intended to ensure him impunity for his crimes, which once again suggests the existence of a tacit or even explicit agreement between the Concertation and the military. Despite this situation, Pinochet's immunity may not be entirely secure. At least two other requests for removal of his immunity may be on the horizon; one in the cases of DINA chemist Eugenio Berrios and diplomat Carmelo Soria. Also, although the Supreme Court refused to extradite Pinochet to Argentina for the Prats case, the case continues underway in Chile. In addition the governments of Germany, Belgium, and France have trials in course against Pinochet.

All these developments are encouraging. It is intolerable that the individual who bears principle responsibility for the crimes committed during the dictatorship enjoys complete impunity, when these crimes on two counts: They violate domestic law but they also violate international human rights law. These crimes are an affront to all humanity; they are not subject to statutes of limitation or amnesties.

What have we learned from the struggle to foster and defend human rights during these 30 years?

First: We had to learn about the doctrine of human rights in the practice, as lawyers, who defended life, motivated by rejection of the horror around us and a commitment to support the persecuted. We fought for human rights without theory or doctrine, which was developed later.

Second: Despite subservience of ordinary and military courts, we were able to construct the foundation for historic and judicial memory regarding crimes committed in those years.

Third: Our work was not limited to the legal arena. We learned to join law with the social movements that struggles to end the dictatorship and restore a democracy.

Fourth: Contact with international human rights doctrine taught us the value of universal jurisdiction over national jurisdictions when these do not lead to justice. That vision motivated many relatives of victims to participate in the case initiated in Spain. Thus, we learned that the fight for human rights had a fundamental transnational dimension.

Fifth: We also came to understand that human rights not only comprise civil and political rights but also a series of inter-related economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. We learned that human rights are not only violated by repressive dictatorial regimes, but also in establishing the neo-liberal capitalist model that was imposed in my country by Augusto Pinochet and Chicago Boys.

Perhaps the greatest lesson was the following: Not the government but the victims were and continue to be the leaders in the struggle for human rights throughout the continent. States have responded to the legitimate clamor for truth and justice with pragmatic policies and symbolic gestures, at the bequest of those responsible for human rights crimes. States, then, become accomplices in impunity.

Regarding the democratically elected governments, the human rights movement has the conviction that: - The democracy attained after the military dictatorship is incomplete, limited and subject to the military and other de facto powers. The Concertation's Platform, in which it promised a new constitution to abolish the many anti-democratic clauses that persist, has not been fulfilled. The Concertation Platform set forth the commitment to truth and justice in all cases of human rights violations. The state has not carried out its promised role, leaving the struggle for truth and justice to the victims' families once more. Repeal of the Amnesty Law, major mechanism that maintains impunity, was another commitment, as was the abolition of the Binomial Electoral Law that excludes smaller parties from any representation.

The experience garnered by the human rights movement throughout the continent has guided us with certain notions on how to construct a genuine democracy, in which the people are the true protagonists of their own history, in which popular sovereignty is broadly recognized and exercised by members of society. A genuine democracy is one in which respect reigns for all human rights established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international treaties, as an ethical framework for Latin American society, which is negated by the prevalent socio-economic system.

If we observe our region and heed ECLAC's (Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean) last report, we cannot help but feel a great anxiety and distress. Decades ago Latin America was thought to be the "continent of hope" but today it is a world in which more than 200 million persons live in poverty. "The concept of solidarity between peoples must be reinforced if we are to construct a Latin America democracy in the future," signals the report. The transnational human rights movement has an important role to play in meeting this challenge.






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