The late Margaret Thatcher played a major role in global affairs, including in one of the defining events of modern international law. In 1998, Baltasar Garzón, a Spanish judge, demanded the extradition of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from the United Kingdom, where he had traveled to receive medical treatment. Garzón sought to prosecute Pinochet in Spain for atrocities perpetrated in Chile by invoking the controversial principle of universal jurisdiction, which enables a country to prosecute major human rights violations -- crimes against humanity, war crimes or genocide -- even if there is no link between that country and the alleged crimes. Pinochet was arrested and spent sixteen months in detention pending a resolution of the extradition issue.
Thatcher was no longer in office at the time but made no secret of her vehement opposition to Pinochet's prosecution, describing it as a "tragedy" at the 1999 Conservative Party Conference. "Pinochet was this country's staunch, true friend in our time of need when Argentina seized the Falkland Islands," Thatcher emphasized. She accused Britain's Labor government of collaborating in Pinochet's "judicial kidnap" and ignoring his past support to the United Kingdom. In her view, the criminal allegations against Pinochet were entirely baseless and simply a pretext for a revenge by "the Left." Pinochet was prosecuted for "defeating communism," the Iron Lady declared.
Thatcher was far from alone in sharing concerns about the development of universal jurisdiction in various national courts, from Spain to Belgium. While universal jurisdiction is widely supported by human rights groups, its opponents commonly describe it as overreaching by national courts that have arrogated themselves the power to judge the world. Thatcher notably denounced "an international lynch-law which, under the guise of defending human rights, now threatens to subvert British justice and the rights of sovereign nations."
Procedural limitations to universal jurisdiction actually exist. In particular, universal jurisdiction does not arise if the country where the atrocities occurred takes diligent steps to investigate and prosecute them. If Chile had duly prosecuted Pinochet, Garzón would have had no basis to pursue him. Further, universal jurisdiction arguably does not arise when the International Criminal Court (ICC) charges a suspect. But in situations where the ICC opts not to take a case or lacks jurisdiction, a national court may invoke universal jurisdiction to judge extremely grave crimes.
Universal jurisdiction has been especially criticized by those who believe that it hinders diplomatic relations and tactical alliances with authoritarian regimes, no matter how unsavory they may be. Thatcher was an outspoken advocate for this point of view rooted in the notion that political interests may justify overlooking serious human rights violations.
In 1973, General Pinochet led a coup overthrowing President Salvador Allende, a democratically-elected socialist. Pinochet's dictatorship was ultimately responsible for the execution or disappearance of over 3,200 people. Thousands more were detained, tortured or forced into exile. Pinochet embezzled at least $28 million that he kept in over 100 secret bank accounts, mostly in the United States. Pinochet eventually lost a 1988 referendum asking Chileans whether he should stay in power, which is the topic of No, a recent Chilean film by Pablo Larraín.
By the time Pinochet traveled to Britain, his past crimes no longer garnered major international attention. Things changed when he was met with the widely publicized Spanish extradition request that shed more light on the nature of his regime. Thatcher nonetheless said she was unaware of Pinochet's crimes and staunchly defended his regime for being anti-communist, insisting that "there is no evidence of [his] involvement in, or even knowledge of, the cases concerned." She seemingly rationalized Pinochet's abuses by reasoning that Chilean leftists would have perpetrated far worse crimes if they had remained in power, thereby rejecting the view that human rights violations are intolerable regardless of who commits them.
Pinochet claimed that his extradition would violate his immunity from prosecution. A judicial panel of Law Lords disagreed, holding that Pinochet could be extradited. Yet, Jack Straw, the British Home Secretary, allowed Pinochet to return to Chile on the grounds of his poor health. Still, the Pinochet extradition proceedings were a landmark case in international human rights law. There was no precedent for the arrest and long months in detention of a former head of state on the basis of a foreign country's claim to universal jurisdiction.
These events may have emboldened Chilean officials in their efforts to try and hold Pinochet accountable. Upon his return to Chile, Pinochet was charged with the massacre of political opponents following his putsch. The courts deemed him unfit to stand trial due to his medical problems. In 2005, Pinochet was re-prosecuted, this time for tax evasion and other offenses. In 2006, he was charged with kidnapping, torture, and murder at a detention camp. Pinochet would never stand trial, as he died in late 2006.
The future of universal jurisdiction remains uncertain. Concerns about its capacity to derail diplomatic relations notably led Belgium to repeal its broad universal jurisdiction law and Spain to narrow the scope of its own law, namely by requiring the presence of the accused on Spanish soil, the existence of Spanish victims or another link to Spain. Universal jurisdiction might still someday lead to significant convictions, including for Bush administration officials who admittedly licensed torture but have not been charged in the United States. Whether universal jurisdiction ultimately regresses or becomes a cornerstone of modern international law, the Iron Lady will be remembered as one of its fiercest opponents.