Amnesty International Secretary General Visits Chile on 10th Anniversary of Pinochet's Arrest: Human Rights Violations Persist
by Natalie Hart
- Chile -
“Impunity for human rights crimes is not just a matter of the past, but also something that continues today.” - Irene Khan, Amnesty International Secretary General
On the tenth anniversary of former military dictator General Pinochet’s arrest in London, Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan led a delegation to Chile to investigate the country’s current human rights situation. Far from a finding nation that has firmly closed the door on its dark past, Khan reports unratified human rights conventions, unresolved cases of regime era disappearance and torture, and an indigenous community subjected to marginalization and discrimination – a country that has failed to put the ghosts of its past to rest.
During Khan’s visit to Chile she acknowledged some advances in the human rights situation, notably the Rettig and Valech reports for truth and reconciliation of the atrocities of the regime, and the recent ratification of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 concerning the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. However, in a memorandum presented to President Bachelet, Khan expresses deep concern at the “large legacy of unfinished business from the era of the military government” which has encumbered Chile’s compliance with international human rights standards and even created circumstances for new incidents of discrimination and marginalization to occur.
President Michelle Bachelet, single mother of three, experienced first hand the horrors of Pinochet’s dictatorship. After first suffering the loss of her father, Alberto Bachelet Martínez, who died in 1974 while imprisoned for opposing the coup, Bachelet herself was then detained and tortured along with her mother before being exiled to Australia. Since her election as President of the Republic of Chile, Bachelet has become a beacon of hope and inspiration worldwide, and yet she presides over a country in which human rights violations are ongoing.According to Amnesty International, Bachelet assured Khan of her commitment to a series of principal recommendations presented to the government during the visit, which included eliminating obstacles to truth, justice and reparation for victims of the Pinochet regime; ending the marginalization and discrimination against indigenous communities; ratifying major international human rights treaties and fulfilling the obligation to develop a National Plan of Human Rights, with an accompanying national human rights institution.
Still, despite Bachelet’s commitment, Khan reports that “the Chilean Congress continues to be ambivalent, and in some cases has even been an obstacle to the ratification of international methods and the adoption of legal changes to make human rights a reality for all people in Chile.” She also attributes delays in Chile’s human rights development to Congress misunderstanding the legislation of statutes. Amnesty International’s findings suggest that the Chilean Congress fears international conventions will interfere with the state’s sovereignty and also mistakenly believes that laws must be changed before a convention can be ratified (rather than vice versa) – sentiments which have resulted in dangerous political foot-dragging.
Another issue highlighted by Amnesty’s report was Chile’s ostensible double standards regarding international human rights law. The organization expresses concern that while Chile actively supports the development of human rights legislation in the international arena, it frequently fails to implement them on a domestic level. “When Chile internationally supports and helps draft a convention which is adopted by the United Nations, but then fails to ratify it themselves, it loses credibility internationally and the confidence of its people domestically,” says Khan. “You cannot ask others to do something and then fail to live up to that commitment yourself.” Of particular concern to Amnesty International was Chile’s failure to ratify both the Rome Statute of International Criminal Court and the United Nations Convention Against Enforced Disappearances, which Chile helped to draft.
The issue of indigenous people’s rights featured prominently in Amnesty International’s report on Chile. “The key problem is that indigenous people are not recognized under the Constitution, and therefore they remain excluded and marginalized,” comments Khan, who met with representatives from indigenous communities in Santiago, Temuco, Collipulli, Calama and Chiu Chiu during her visit.
Chile’s indigenous population has long been the center of territorial disputes – battling first for their territory against the Spanish conquistadors, then Pinochet’s government and now commercial forestry companies. Amnesty International notes that the high levels of poverty faced by the indigenous people obstructs their ability to exercise their economic, social and cultural rights in the face of ongoing conflicts over territorial rights. The alleged “militarization” of Mapuche towns and disproportionate levels of violence employed by law-enforcement authorities have only served to increase these tensions.Amnesty International identifies inappropriate legislation as a key area of concern regarding human rights violations against indigenous people, and notes their disappointment in the recent application of the “Anti-terrorist Law” – legislation enacted during the Pinochet regime to remove opposition. While President Bachelet assures that her government will not ask for such legislation to be used against Mapuche people charged for involvement in activities supporting indigenous people’s land rights, individual prosecutors continue to evoke the law. When questioned on the topic, President Bachelet expressed her reluctance to interfere with the independent authority of the prosecutor; however Amnesty International points out that governmental derogation of the law would serve to prevent its application without infringing on the prosecutor’s authority.
The gross misapplication of the Military Code of Justice, an ugly remnant from the dictatorship, was also criticized by Amnesty International’s memorandum. Multiple instances of the military jurisdiction being applied to civilians are recorded, particularly against indigenous people, in clear violation of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ legislation. The code also holds partial responsibility for the minor sentences bestowed on many Pinochet-era officials responsible for grave cases of torture and disappearance.
During her visit, Khan was questioned about the alleged “VIP prisons” which exist in Chile for military personnel convicted by the Military Code of Justice, and supposedly offer “inmates” privacy, high quality food and access to family and loved ones. “We do not need to visit these prisons to know that justice, truth and reparations are being inadequately, appallingly inadequately, dealt with here now.” Naming slow processes, a lack of co-operation in sharing information, unreasonably light sentences and the use of ‘blocking laws’ such as the Statute of Liberation as proof, she says “There is still a lack of political will throughout all parts of Chilean state institutions to address this issue.”
Eighteen years on from a military regime that tore the country apart, Chile has clearly made some advances in its human rights situation and taken steps towards restoring its credibility on an international level. However, in order for the country to truly put a past of gross human rights violations behind it, a more active and committed approach to the ratification of international conventions must be taken. In a society that cannot move forward without reparation, the cloud of the regime still lingers overhead – manifesting itself on both a political and social level. Perhaps with a president who has such a personal experience of the dictatorship’s atrocities herself, one would have expected the reparations to take shape in a faster and more decisive manner.
President Bachelet has 17 months of presidency before her; 17 months in which to ratify the international conventions which Chile appears so desperately to need and to fervently implement those which the country’s government has ratified already. For the sake of her people, we must hope she succeeds.
About the Author
Natalie Hart is working on her BA in Arabic and Spanish at the University of Cambridge. Currently on a year abroad, she is dividing her time between journalism in Chile and studying in the Middle East. In Chile, Natalie is editor of the Valparaíso Times, and writes for the Santiago Times and the cultural magazine Revolver. She is also working on a dissertation focusing on Arabic influences in Argentine Borges’ literature.