Washington, 3 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The case of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet highlights a more general dilemma democratic countries face when they try to ease dictators from their offices and thus promote democracy in places where these leaders have denied it.
If democracies fail to denounce the crimes of dictators, they subvert much of their own moral influence. But if democracies insist on punishing a dictator once he leaves office, their efforts in this direction may cause other dictators to hold on to power rather than risk leaving it.
And that in turn can eliminate one of the most effective levers democratic countries have in promoting a transition from dictatorship to democracy: the offer of safe haven and a kind of amnesty in exchange for getting dictators to depart.
Such an approach is seldom morally satisfying, as the recent public outcry about Pinochet shows. But in an imperfect world, it is sometimes the best of what are often many bad options available to policymakers who are interested in promoting positive change.
On Thursday, Pinochet returned from London to Santiago after the British authorities refused to extradite him to Spain and other countries that sought to try him for crimes against humanity. The British government took this position after concluding that the former Chilean leader was too ill to participate in his own defense.
Not surprisingly, many human rights and democratic activists have denounced London's decision. They have argued that the world must render judgment on Pinochet so that no one will be tempted to do what he and his regime did in Chile. And they have insisted that if he gets away without a trial, other dictators will see this as a green light for their activities.
Such a position is very attractive to human rights advocates, but it largely ignores three aspects of the current international system that governments and citizens around the world have to cope with.
First, there are a large number of former dictators who gave up their power only because they were convinced that they would not be prosecuted. If the international community changes course on that, the many current dictators around the world will do whatever they can to hold on to power and thus delay the appearance of democracy.
Uganda's Idi Amin, Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam, Haiti's Jean-Claude Duvalier and Raoul Cedras, and Uruguay's Alfredo Stroessner all gave up power at least in part out of the expectation that they would not be prosecuted after they departed.
And that is a powerful lever in the hands of democratic governments to promote change, a lever many of them would be loathe to give up.
Second, any prosecutions would almost inevitably be highly selective. When Spain first demanded that Pinochet be extradited from Britain to stand trial, numerous commentators suggested that the governments in one or another country should consider bringing charges against former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev or even current Chinese leaders.
Such actions, these analysts suggested, would allow the international community to pass judgment on their actions as well. And at the very least, the threat of such prosecutions would keep these people from traveling, just as the threat of prosecution for war crimes currently keeps Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade.
But many other analysts noted that no court would be likely to prosecute current or past leaders of major powers. On the one hand, there are serious disputes of just what their historical role has been. And on the other, few governments want to isolate these countries by preventing their leaders from traveling abroad.
And third, such prosecutions are generally initiated by individual countries rather than by an internationally sanctioned court. The way in which the international community has chosen to deal with war crimes in the former Yugoslavia represents a significant exception.
In the absence of a single standard, one or another country or group of countries could try to impose its own views, an approach that could also undermine the possibility for international negotiations and agreements.
And such an approach could accelerate an already dangerous trend in which ever more people view human rights prosecutions not as an essential part of the effort to promote a better world, but rather one that conforms to the standards of only a limited number of countries.
History has already rendered its judgment on the crimes of people like Pinochet, and many would certainly welcome a judicial judgment as well. But trying to get such a judgment may have consequences few supporters of democracy and human rights would actually want.