The time is right to revive the concept of “universal jurisdiction” — the idea that a person, whatever their nationality, can be called to account before the court of any civilized country for grave international crimes, argues Inder Comar.
By Inder Comar
In hindsight, it is almost too extraordinary: the leader of a Western-friendly government responsible for the deaths of thousands, and the torture of tens of thousands, arrested and brought to account for his åcrimes before a court and a judge.
But this is exactly what happened in 1998, when Judge Baltasar Garzon, a Spanish magistrate, issued an arrest warrant for the former dictator of Chile, Augusto Pinochet, while Pinochet was in the United Kingdom seeking medical treatment.
What happened next was a series of hearings that became known as The Pinochet Case, and which ended with a stunning victory for human rights: Britain’s House of Lords deciding in 1999 that the arrest of Pinochet could proceed on the basis that his alleged international crimes violated human rights norms.
Pinochet received a reprieve from then British Home Secretary Jack Straw, who decided that Pinochet was too ill to stand trial, and permitted Pinochet to leave and go back to Chile.
But the moment could not be undone: an authoritarian leader who had committed terrible crimes was forced to account for them—somewhere.
Fast-forward two years to the events of 9/11.
The Excuse of Fighting Terrorism
Governments around the world, including the American government, have openly and earnestly used the excuse of terrorism to tear down an international human rights mandate that was growing of its own accord. It had produced an unthinkable amount of accountability over Pinochet—a former head of state who had been sponsored and defended by powerful Western governments despite his record of torture and murder.
In the so-called War on Terror, the global prohibition against torture, codified in the Convention Against Torture, was dismantled in favor of renditions, black sites, and cruel and inhuman treatment against people who were never accused of any crime, or someone like Khalid al Masri, a German national, who was taken…