Monday, October 19, 1998 Published at 19:03 GMT 20:03 UK
Analysis: No more getting away with murder
General Pinochet's arrest: A sign of the times?
By BBC Diplomatic Correspondent Barnaby Mason
General Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile in 1973 with the secret support of the United States.
At the time, few had any doubts about the brutal methods he used to put down dissent but, in the atmosphere of the struggle against communism, Washington's view was famously expressed in the line: "he may be a son-of-a-bitch but at least he's our son-of-a-bitch."
Times have changed. Since the end of the Cold War, the view that political and economic expediency cannot excuse the worst crimes against humanity has gained ground.
Many feel that international intervention may be justified even in cases which used to be regarded as purely internal matters - Kosovo is a prime example. The change in the international climate is reflected in the creation of International Tribunals to try war crimes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
A few months ago agreement was finally reached to set up a permanent International Criminal Court.
Could set a precedent
The Communist leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro, expressed amazement at the arrest and talked of international meddling. Most despots rarely leave home and are out of reach - President Saddam Hussein of Iraq is a good example. But some have found refuge abroad, like the former Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin.
But the change in mood should not be exaggerated.
Cynics point out that General Pinochet is out of office and has outgrown his usefulness to the West.
Contrast recent dealings with Pinochet with the approach to handling Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic - regarded, despite everything, as a bargaining partner capable of delivering a deal that is preferable to a wider Balkan war.
Calling the former Chilean dictator to account is in tune with the ethical foreign policy proclaimed by the British Labour government when it was elected in 1997. But the Foreign Office has been strikingly reticent, saying that extradition is a judicial process which it cannot comment on.
The arrest of General Pinochet looks less a calculated initiative, more the result of a combination of circumstances. These include energetic Spanish judges, a recent extradition treaty between Britain and Spain, and Spanish legislation allowing the prosecution of genocide and terrorism even when committed abroad.
Nevertheless, however far to the right Tony Blair's Labour Party may have moved, British ministers have a background in the left wing protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. And if the courts decide the extradition of General Pinochet to Spain is justified, it will be the government that makes the final, political decision.