Strategies from Chile on the Globalized Struggle Against Impunity


Fabiola Letelier del Solar (Memoria y Justicia Chile) presented the following reflections as her participation in a panel discussion on "Human Rights and Humanitarian Intervention Conference: Are We at War? Global Conflict and Insecurity Post-9/11" at Chapman University Law School, Los Angeles California on April 6, 2006, as part of a university speaking tour in the United States organized by the non-profit Voices of Survivors.

I was so honored when in 1998 Chapman University conferred upon me its award for that outstanding man of peace, Albert Schweitzer. And I am grateful for the opportunity you have extended to come here again to participate in this conference, whose title Are We at War? Global Conflict and Insecurity Post 9/11 sends me back 30 years in time to another 9/11, in 1973, when my country entered 17 years of terror. Other speakers have ably discussed war and terror from philosophical and political perspectives. My personal experience, as sister of a victim and lifelong attorney in defense of human rights, perhaps brings a different focus to the topic.

In November 1973 Augusto Pinochet granted me the interview I had sought for weeks after the arrest of my brother Orlando Letelier. He allowed me to meet with him in his office only because Orlando Letelier had been Defense Minister and Pinochet his subordinate. I reminded the General that my brother had not been charged with any crime and should be released. Pinochet glared at me with his cold blue eyes and said, "We are at war with the Popular Unity government and all leaders will be put on trial." He also reassured me that he would think over my request and give me an answer within 48 hours.

Pinochet did not respond in 48 hours but as the months and years went by, his message was clear; and there never was a trial for the former government officials he imprisoned. My brother remained imprisoned more than a year with other Popular Unity officials held as prisoners of war in remote Dawson Island in southern Chile where frigid winds swept as they performed hard labor. International efforts compelled Pinochet to release and expel him from Chile. Two years later the Military Junta stripped Orlando Letelier of Chilean nationality and sent intelligence agents to plant a car bomb that killed him and his US assistant Ronni Karpen Moffet in Washington DC on September 21, 1976.

The assassination of my brother Orlando Letelier was the first act of international terrorism committed on U.S. soil.

The military dictatorship headed by Pinochet exemplifies the practice of terrorism as a state policy to maintain political and psychosocial control of the population. In name of national security, the regime ruthlessly pursued opponents within Chile and across international borders.

The Chilean military became versed in the national security doctrine from U.S. military instructors. Prior to September 11, 1973 600 members of the Chilean Armed Forces had attended courses at the National War College and the School of the Americas. The message transmitted to Chilean military men, as well as officers from the other Latin American countries was: Today our enemies are not from other nations. Now we must fight against a more dangerous internal enemy who is spreading the seeds of international Communism within our countries. It is an enemy that does not wear a uniform nor can be readily identified.

The concept of the enemy from within created the conviction that this enemy had to be rooted out and neutralized regardless of the cost. Like the Argentine, Uruguayan, Guatemalan and Salvadoran military trained by the US in the National Security Doctrine, these officers believed that because they were in the front lines of the defense of Western-Christian civilization, fighting against an internal enemy labeled as subversive-terrorists, draconian and extreme methods were both necessary and justified, despite the collateral damage and restriction on civil and political rights of the population. During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, thousands of Latin American officers went through such training resulting in military dictatorships, state terrorism and the disappearance of over 200,000 people in the region.

On the day of the coup the Junta declared state of siege, and later issued military decree number 5, which reinterpreted the Military Justice Code to define state of siege as synonymous with state of internal war. Except for brief periods of normalcy, state of siege and later state of emergency was enforced in Chile from 1973 until 1988. That is, during more than 15 years, the suspension of civil liberties and policies of repression were justified because the country was in a state of siege, synonymous with state of war. Under the guise of that fictitious war, Chilean military rulers imposed dawn to dusk curfews, imprisoned thousands, conducted summary executions and made torture a systematic practice. In 2004 some 35,000 people, testified before Chile�s National Commission on Political Imprisonment that they were tortured during the years of the military dictatorship.

Between 1974 and 1979 4,500 women and men of all ages were brought to the Villa Grimaldi concentration camp, where they were interrogated, tortured, held in secret detention, and many of them assassinated and disappeared. One of the survivors of Villa Grimaldi was a young medical student called Michelle Bachelet who last month became the first woman to take office as President of Chile. Prisoners at Villa Grimaldi were maintained blindfolded, refused contact with lawyers or family, and routinely tortured. The State of Internal War was profusely used by the regime and the media under its control to justify such practices. A survivor of Villa Grimaldi reflected upon his detention as follows: "What impressed me most is that they considered torture normal and routine. What they were doing was good and they did it for the sake of the country."

Facile explanations arise to produce oblivion and to avoid confronting things. They say, agents "went too far," or �this was the work of madmen." Or it was the consequence of the climate of convulsion produced by the Popular Unity government and its efforts to democratically change the status quo. Therefore, those who produced the convulsion are to blame. Those are all easy justifications intended to avoid the truth. The truth is that Villa Grimaldi was not the result of a few excesses or madness. It was a well-thought out, carefully planned system of State terrorism, justified on the basis of the military doctrine of National Security with which the US trained the officer corps of Latin American military.

To desperate family members searching for their loved ones, the Interior Minister denied they had been arrested. The Interior Minister also denied that Villa Grimaldi even existed.

Yet the Chilean government was paying the light bills for the electric current used to torture prisoners. The torturers were on the government payroll. And the Chilean government paid the airline tickets and salaries of the men who traveled to the United States to assassinate my brother. That is the institutionalization of state terrorism.

Alarmed by reports of human rights violations in Chile, the international community responded immediately and effectively after the coup. In September 1973 the Organization of American States (OAS) through its Inter American Human Rights Commission issued the first of four special reports on the state 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.

World condemnation of the Chilean dictatorship deepened after three acts of international terrorism planned in Chile and carried out on foreign soil. The first was the assassination in 1974 of General Carlos Prats, former Army Commander in Chief, and his wife in Buenos Aires. The second was the frustrated attempt to assassinate former Vice President Bernardo Leighton and his wife in Rome in 1975. The third was the assassination of Orlando Letelier on September 21, 1976 in the capital of the United States, which prompted the US Congress to enact the Kennedy Amendment cutting off military assistance to Chile for the duration of the military dictatorship.

The insistent condemnations of the UN and OAS were joined by the International Bertrand Russell Tribunal that denounced the military dictatorships of Brazil and Chile. Parliaments of democratic European and Latin American governments also expressed concern for the situation in Chile. The Chilean military dictatorship lent no credence to international condemnation against it, reasoning that foreigners had no right to meddle in its internal affairs.

In much the same vein, the United States responds today to international critics of the imprisonment and treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, Abu Graib and secret detention centers. Like Chile, the United States is a party to the Geneva Conventions. Villa Grimaldi yesterday and Guantanamo today violate the Geneva Conventions by holding prisoners without trial, stripping them of human dignity, depriving them of communication with family, lawyers or doctors during long period of time. The logic is the same "We are justified, because we are at war against a new type of enemy."

The Challenge of Globalizing the Defense of Human Rights

During 25 years Chilean courts never accepted international law as grounds for justice in human rights, routinely applied the amnesty provision enacted by the dictatorship, to close cases. Impunity seemed to be the outcome for flagrant human rights violations. The trial against Augusto Pinochet in Spain and his arrest in London in 1998 changed that. Expectations were ignited that justice at last was possible in Chile. The 504 days Pinochet was under house arrest motivated attorneys to revitalize old cases and to file new ones. Since 1999, attorneys in Santiago and throughout the country have filed more than 500 criminal complaints related to human rights violations, and the courts have not applied the amnesty in single case.

The international trial conducted by Baltazar Garzon in the Audiencia Nacional of Spain accused both Chilean military and civilian collaborators of genocide, crimes against humanity and torture. Three thousand Chileans, including myself, became parties to the complaint. In Chile the crime of genocide was one of the prevalent causes of action in the hundreds of human rights cases filed in the courts and increasingly, Chilean courts have cited the Geneva Conventions as grounds for indictment in human rights cases.

In July 2004, Pinochet again made headlines around the world when a US Senate Subcommittee discovered incriminating evidence that US bank had aided Pinochet in money laundering. This most recent occurrence outside Chilean borders, as surprising as the arrest in London, derives from the discovery that Pinochet concealed millions of dollars in assets in the Riggs Bank in Washington DC while under house arrest in London. The illicit activities of the former dictator have led to charges of malfeasance in office, fraud, bribery, falsification of documents and other crimes. Today his wife and children have also been charged as accessories.

All these developments are encouraging. Still, it is unacceptable that there is more tolerance for economic crimes than for human rights crimes. There cannot be a double standard and Pinochet must be prosecuted for both. The connection between human rights violation and appropriation of economic assets by force and corruption is something that needs to be explored. However, there cannot be zero tolerance for corruption but impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations.

United States Citizens Among the Victims of the Pinochet Dictatorship

Among the more than 3000 persons executed or disappeared in Chile are three United States citizens: Frank Terruggi, Boris Weisfeiler and Charles Horman Frank Teruggi, an economics student, was arrested in the days following the coup and brought to the National Stadium, converted in massive prison. He was taken to an interrogation and on October 2, 1973 his body was found in the Santiago morgue, from which it was returned to the United States for burial. Boris Weisfeiler was a Russian Jew who immigrated to the United States and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. An avid outdoorsman, in 1984 he came to Chile to hike and inadvertently wandered too close to Colonia Dignidad, an enclave founded by German Nazis with close ties to the military rulers. He was not seen nor heard from since. To this day he remains one of hundreds of disappeared persons in Chile. Neither the Teruggi nor the Weisfeiler cases have progressed substantially.

However the Horman case is an example of how far justice is able to advance in today�s Chile. In December 2000, I and my colleague attorney Sergio Corvalan, filed the first criminal complaint for the abduction, first degree murder, and torture of the young journalist, Charles Horman, whose story became widely known thanks to the movie Missing. In the days before and immediately following the coup, Horman was in a coastal resort town where he met United States military officials who openly expressed satisfaction with the coup's success and insinuated at prior knowledge about the overthrow. On September 17, 1973 in Santiago neighbors observed a military patrol remove Horman from his home and ransack the house. When the body was located in the morgue, in late October, the family's repeated attempts to remove the body from the morgue were denied for technical reasons. Members of the United States Senate had to pressure their government, threatening to block authorization of arms to the Chilean Military junta. In March 1974, seven months later, the Horman family received a telegram from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, informing them that the government of Chile had approved their request to sent the remains to New York. The cable added that United States Embassy in Santiago required the payment of US$900 to cover transportation costs.

Ten U.S. citizens who knew Horman traveled to testify before the Chilean judge. The Horman case has advanced so much that we now know details about the military patrol that arrested him as well as possible negligence of the U.S. Embassy. Declassified State Department and CIA documents have been key in establishing the facts of the case. A State Department report dated August 1976 states: "There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest US intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman's death. At best it was limited to providing or confirming information that helped motivate his murder by the GOC [government of Chile]. At worst, US intelligence was aware that the GOC saw Horman in a rather serious light and US officials did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of GOC paranoia."

Lessons from Chile and Latin America

At the present time, I think that our experience as human rights lawyers in Chile over the past 30 years offers some lessons for current debates about strategies to protect human rights in the world today. The experience garnered by the human rights movement throughout Latin America has taught us lessons on how to construct a genuine democracy. 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, serves as the core ethical framework for society. International human rights doctrine taught us the value of universal jurisdiction over national law when it fails to lead to justice.

The practice of torture and crimes against humanity are entering international consciousness as universal common law and the principle of jus cogens. These are mandatory norms binding upon all states. A Chilean court ruled that even though Chile has not ratified all treaties, it is still obligated to adhere to those norms.

The creation of the International Criminal Court is the most significant and promising achievement for the world community because it establishes the principle of universal jurisdiction regarding parties to the treaty, in crimes against humanity, genocide and crimes of war. It does not preempt national judiciaries; rather it has a complementary function in cases in which national courts cannot or do not wish to investigate and sanction these crimes. One of our great expectations for the government of President Michelle Bachelet is that Chile�s Senate may ratify the Statutes of Rome.

A Global Partnership to Protect Human Rights

As US historian, Steve Volk has stated, Chile and the US have been bonded by two September 11s. Not only because in Chile and the US, terror arrived on wings of airplanes - the Hawker Hunter jets diving to bomb the Moneda presidential palace on September 11, 1973, and on the commercial jets that crashed into the World Center on September 11, 2001.

Both of our countries have become linked in a deeper sense. In both countries, September 11 led to a rewriting of internal guidelines and the abandonment of long-standing precepts of international law to create a new category of criminal (so called enemy combatants) who can be detained without charge, denied access to legal counsel or trial, and brutalized by interrogation methods.

The experience and suffering of over thirty years in Chile and Latin America offer two important lessons that we need to reflect upon, as we struggle to create a justice, democracy and security in today�s globalized world.

First, impunity for human rights violations, wherever they occur, whether in Villa Grimaldi or Guantanamo, undermines democracy. We must maintain the struggle against impunity for crimes against humanity, because these crimes affect not only the victim and his or her family, but also society as a whole. With impunity, it becomes impossible to build a genuinely democratic society. Impunity is a new crime that adds on to the crimes already committed. Impunity violates the right to equality under the law, since it grants a specific group of victimizers, exclusion from the rule of law, something that must apply to all without exceptions. Achieving truth, justice and reparation to the victims is a legal duty of governments, that should always be demanded and that does not prescribe with time.

Second, the defense of human rights requires the active participation of the population as many times States and governments become derelict in the protection of these rights and accomplices in their violation. An active and vibrant international human rights movement is the best guarantee that such rights will be respected locally, nationally, and internationally. An important aspect of ensuring the defense of human rights today is the expansion, not the weakening of international human rights jurisprudence and protection mechanisms.

Now, more than ever, the United States in particular must become partners with Chile and Latin America in a globalized society that strives to attain universal respect for human, civil, social, economic and cultural rights. As global partners, we must enforce international norms that protect democracy and human rights in every corner and under every circumstance. Now, more than ever Chile as well as the United States must ratify the International Criminal Court and support international human rights instances.

The struggle against impunity and the permanence of a vibrant international human rights movement is the best guarantee that, in the globalized world, security will not be achieved at the expense of justice and democracy.






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