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Est. April 5, 2002

May 14, 2015 - Issue 606

Bookmark and Share May 14, 2015 - Issue 606: Laws And Customs Of Impunity That Protect Modern Criminals - Solidarity America

If impunity is the absence of justice, then there are many in positions of power in the so-called developed as well as the developing world who are being protected, even though they committed crimes that should not go unpunished.

Baltasar Garzon, the jurist who issued an arrest warrant for Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, stated in a recent essay on  “As lived reality or in the law, impunity is usually present in some form in our lives, whether through laws designed to protect big criminals, a judicial inability to confront both major and minor criminal activity, an absence of political will to tackle weaknesses in the judicial system, unrestrained granting of pardons in circumstances of transitional justice, or irrational acquittals or illegal amnesties. All with scant regard for accepted international standards and the doctrines of human rights courts and tribunals that prohibit such actions.”

In essence, he was saying simply that there will be no peace without justice.   But, if impunity is so pervasive in our world, how will there be justice anywhere, if those who commit crimes, big and small, are protected by laws, by custom, by tradition, or by trickery? 

Political and economic elites in every country, rich or poor, always have acted to protect their positions, their wealth, and their power.  And, they nearly always are guilty of the first crime:  Deciding in their own mind or with the complicity of a few others in their inner circle that they will do anything to increase their power and that always means controlling the people of the country.

In Pinochet’s case, he was the beneficiary of a military coup, which ousted a democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, who died in the takeover.  There are voluminous records, reports, and books indicating the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s involvement in the coup and its preparation.  What followed was a 17-year reign of terror for any opponents of the Pinochet regime.  There were thousands killed, thousands interned and estimates that as many as 80,000 tortured during his time.  In 1980, he orchestrated a plebiscite and a new constitution that contained his escape hatch:  He would be a senator for life, which he believed would give him immunity from prosecution for the crimes committed during his rule.

There was a laundry list of human rights crimes committed by Pinochet and his regime, but he though he was safe.   The one thing he may not have accounted for, however, was the resort to traditions of international law and agreements, under which Garzon issued the arrest warrant for Pinochet, while he was in London, where he was visited and celebrated by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who praised him for “bringing democracy to Chile.”  A democracy in form, perhaps, but one soaked in the blood of its people.

Garzon, however, was not talking about Pinochet alone.  Rather, he swept the brush broadly across the world and included internal conflicts, as well as other forays into war crimes and crimes against humanity.  His question, in effect, is: Who speaks for the victims of torture and death and do the perpetrators continue to benefit by some “agreement of immunity” between the two parties in the conflict, or some law that purports to relieve the responsibility for perpetrating crimes, great or small?

Tragically, there are few voices that call out for justice.  If it is true that the victor writes the history of a war, conflict, mass torture, revolution, or even genocide, then the perpetrators cannot be expected to stand before the bar of justice anywhere, anytime.   They might get their just desserts, in one way or another, but they are rarely required to stand before a judge and answer for their crimes...and be sentenced, by whatever the appropriate punishment.  As a result, there are many who have committed great crimes against humanity and war crimes who are still walking free.  Some of them even receive honorary degrees from prestigious colleges and universities for their “contributions” to the nation and the world.

The great acts, personal and institutional, that rise to the level of crimes against humanity or war crimes are too many to list outside of a rather lengthy book, so it will be best to just use one example, the U.S. invasion of Iraq by the George W. Bush and Dick Cheney Administration.  That war of choice was a war of aggression, which is against international laws and treaties.  It was done in the name of “ridding the world of an evil dictator and bringing democracy” to a people who are desperate for it.  And, of course, to rid Iraq of its “weapons of mass destruction,” which were not present. 

It turned out, just as millions had predicted it would.  There were protests around the world against the invasion by millions of people, but to no avail.  Once the country was broken by the invasion that the U.S. administration called “shock and awe,” it was ravaged by war for a dozen years and served as the fuse for more war and destruction that spread throughout the Middle East.  There is no fixing it and the people never will be made whole by anyone, let alone those who caused such massive suffering.  It did not end with the election of a new president, as we have seen with President Obama’s drone war in several countries in the flaming region, as well as supplying weapons to various factions.  The U.S. also has sent advisors to some parts of the region under Obama’s watch.

Garzon refers to “auto-immunity,” which is given by leaders who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity, to themselves, by passing laws to protect themselves, when their dictatorship or regime is beginning to come to an end.  In Spain, after the decades of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Garzon refers to a kind of national amnesia, allowing the memory of the atrocities committed under his regime to fade. In Spain, he wrote, “The more than 150,000 disappeared are still waiting for truth, justice and reparation.”  He has other examples, such as Latin America, where crimes were committed and impunity saved the perpetrators from having to answer.

So it is with much of the rest of the world, but in at least some cases, there is a possibility that some action will be taken before the International Criminal Court (ICC).  In the case of the U.S., there is little chance of that happening, because it is not a participant in the ICC and is not likely to answer for any actions.     The victor, as we know, writes the history, but the victor also goes unpunished for any crimes committed. 

Those who rule in the U.S. would never allow even any discussion of wrongdoing by the national leaders, let alone draw up a list of charges.  A primary reason is that the people have been brainwashed to believe in “American exceptionalism,” which is supposed to make the U.S. a nation to be emulated and a place where everyone in the world wants to be.  The exceptionalism to which they refer was an idea of freedom and justice and equality that were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.  The intent was, indeed, exceptional, but the founding documents were written by a small group of men, who were more likely to have been thinking of their own world as they knew it:  A nation ruled by a small group of men, with dominion over the land, the slaves, and the toilers, men and women.  There is still so far to go for all citizens to reach even close to what the founders dreamed for themselves.

But, the political leaders and the rich need the people to believe in the myth of exceptionalism, or they would not support their wars, their reckless abuse of the land, water, and air, the destruction of social programs that benefit everyone, and the plundering of the economy, so that the wealth and income go directly to the top.  If they knew the history of their country, the common people would refuse to support the rich in their attempt to maintain complete control.  The people don’t know and reasons for the ignorance is the dumbing down of education and the nearly total lack of honest reporting by what are now called the “mass media,” as opposed to the word “press,” as is written in the Bill of Rights.

Scholars, researchers, and reporters write about and discuss wars and atrocities in dozens of countries around the world, but not many politicians ever remark in public about these matters or what can or should be done about them…it hits too close to home.  Individuals like Garzon around the world know the crimes that have been committed and, mostly, they know that the rich and powerful never have to answer for their actions.   When it happens, as in the case of Pinochet, it is the exception.  Why can’t there be at least an open discussion on the crimes committed by American leaders?

After more than 400 years of slavery, the U.S. House in 2008 apologized for slavery, acknowledging the “injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow.”  The U.S. Senate followed suit in 2009, but, as we have seen in the past few years, the U.S. is far from post-racial and the power elite will never countenance the payment of reparations. 

Few expect actual dollar reparations, but it is in the hands of elected leaders to level the playing field for those who have been pushed out, marginalized, and in many ways, continue to be brutalized.  That is a very tall order and, for many, that would be enough in reparations, but the crimes would have to be admitted in more than a short apology.  If the nation could just get to the point of admitting the mass crime of slavery, it just might begin a multi-generational discussion of other crimes in our history.

Without that, we can’t go forward and make decisions as if we were a true democracy, as envisioned in the abstract by the founders.

(Baltasar Garzón is currently the head of Julian Assange's legal team.) Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.

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