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HUMAN RIGHTS: Two Triumphs for Universal Justice

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jul 2 2003 (IPS) - The celebration of the first anniversary of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Tuesday and Mexico’s extradition of an alleged former Argentine torturer to Spain on charges of crimes against humanity marked two milestones for international justice.

Both events, applauded by human rights groups, academics and political leaders around the world, strengthen the principle of universal justice, according to which the perpetrators of war crimes, torture, forced disappearance and politically-motivated killings are subject to international jurisdiction if no national court is able or willing to handle the cases.

Mexico extradited former Argentine navy captain Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, alias Serpico or Marcelo, to Spain on Saturday, where the ôAudiencia Nacional", the country’s highest criminal court, will try him for crimes against humanity.

The extradition, authorised by Mexico’s Supreme Court in mid-June, made Cavallo the first serving or former Latin American military officer to be prosecuted by a judge from a third country after being arrested in a country where he had no legal problems.

The 52-year-old Cavallo, who was arrested in August 2000 in Mexico, where he was leading the life of a prosperous businessman, is accused of torturing, killing and ôdisappearing" dozens of people during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship in Argentina, where he was let off the hook by amnesty laws. Between 10,000 and 30,000 people became victims of forced disappearance during the de facto regime in Argentina.

Cavallo was a member of the dictatorship’s GT 3.3.2 Task Force, an intelligence group implicated in kidnapping and torturing large numbers of leftists and opponents of the regime.

The former captain refused to testify in Spain, denying that the country’s courts had any jurisdiction over him.

Mexico’s decision to extradite Cavallo stood in sharp contrast to the British government’s final decision not to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) to Spain, where he was wanted by the same judge, Baltasar Garzón.

After spending nearly one and a half years under house arrest in London as a result of the warrant issued by Garzón, the elderly Pinochet was allowed to return to Chile in March 2000 by the British government, which cited his poor health.

For years, Garzón has spearheaded the attempt to bring former military officers in Argentina and Chile to justice for atrocities committed against Spanish citizens by the Southern Cone dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s.

ôMexico has set an example and propped up universal justice, which is why it is being congratulated around the world today," Alfonso García, spokesman in Mexico for the London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International, told IPS.

A similar view was expressed by Adriana Carmona with the Mexican Commission for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights. "Mexico has demonstrated that it has an advanced judiciary, which recognises the principle of international justice," she remarked to IPS.

But both Pérez and Carmona urged the government of Vicente Fox to take the final step, and ratify the Rome Statute, which created the ICC.

A total of 90 nations have ratified the treaty, which was signed on Jul. 17, 1998 at a United Nations conference held in Rome. But Mexico has not yet done so, even though it is a signatory.

ôThe fact that the ICC has reached its first anniversary in full-swing and with a well-defined mission is another clear victory for universal justice," said García.

The ICC, which opened its doors on Jul. 1, 2002 in The Hague, is the first permanent international court set up to try crimes against humanity, like the ones allegedly committed by Cavallo.

But the former Argentine officer could not be tried by the ICC, whose jurisdiction is not retroactive, and is limited to crimes against humanity committed after it was created, in countries that have ratified the Rome Statute.

Further, the ICC can only act in cases in which national courts are unwilling or unable û due to amnesty laws, for example û to prosecute those accused of war crimes, genocide or other crimes against humanity.

The Cavallo case is emblematic, ôbecause it has demonstrated that with a little cooperation between nations, the principle of universal jurisdiction can be applied without time limits or pretexts like the expiration of the statute of limitations," said García.

Cavallo was sent to Spain thanks to an extradition treaty between Mexico and that southern European country.

"The important thing is that Cavallo is already being tried in Spain, which is a triumph for everyone, and for the ICC to begin to act against current human rights violators," said Carmona.

Diego Beas, an expert in international law at the Ibero-American University in Mexico, said that even with its limitations, the ICC is one of the ômost important instruments that the international political will has created."

Under the Rome Statute, intervention by the ICC must be requested by party states or by the ICC prosecutor. In addition, the United Nations Security Council can ask the ICC to handle a case from a non-signatory state.

The ICC is made up of 18 judges of different nationalities. Its chief prosecutor is eminent Argentine lawyer and prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo. The justices and Moreno Ocampo have already received 400 complaints.

But the work of the judges will not be easy, because the United States and other powerful countries like China, Britain and Russia have not ratified the treaty, which could potentially leave many perpetrators of crimes against humanity outside of the Court’s jurisdiction.

Moreover, Washington has successfully pressed 40 ICC signatory nations to sign bilateral treaties that leave U.S. citizens, especially soldiers, in their countries outside of the jurisdiction of the ICC. In Latin America, the list includes Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Panama.

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