September 11th , Terrorism & the Globalization of Human Rights

4 September 2008
The international human rights movement helped to bring General Pinochet to justice for his crimes whilst dictator of Chile. Yet there is no similar movement demanding accountability for the US officials involved in illegal torture practices since 11 September 2001.

Fires, explosions, mayhem, flames leaping through the air. The smell of death. The visions being recounted here are of September 11.

The international human rights movement helped to bring General Pinochet to justice for his crimes whilst dictator of Chile. Yet there is no similar movement demanding accountability for the US officials involved in illegal torture practices since 11 September 2001.

Fires, explosions, mayhem, flames leaping through the air. The smell of death. The visions being recounted here are of September 11. This was the day, 35 years ago, of the US sponsored coup against the democratically elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende of Chile, replete with the firebombing of the Presidential Palace. And yet, so many, while aware of the eerily similar images from September 11, 2001, remain wholly ignorant of what many Chileans refer to as the “other September 11th”.

Torture, kidnappings, disappearances, assassinations. The world after September 11, 2001. Yes, but this describes as well the world of state terrorism after September 11, 1973 in Chile and in those countries subjected to the international terrorist activities of the feared Chilean intelligence agency, DINA, in its Operation Condor, with assistance from other Southern Cone governments and the US. Thus, for the US government and the Central Intelligence Agency, these means - torture, disappearances and so forth - used after September 11, 2001, were not new, not confined to a response to an attack against the US; no, these were standard operating procedures of the US in supporting the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that it helped install; just as they were standard in the Central American governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and the dictatorships the US help install throughout Latin America in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and continued to support right up through the murders of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (assassinated while saying mass), the four US nuns (all in 1980) and the six Jesuit priests in 1989 as oligarchic death squad regimes killed hundreds of thousands with impunity.(1)

Why did the US support such policies? To spread the democracy and freedom the US has advertised its adversaries supposedly hate and it supposedly embraces? No, in 1973 the US helped overthrow a democratically elected government and install a ruthless dictatorship, to ensure that the experiment of democratic socialism would not survive. Chile, up until that time Latin America’s oldest and strongest democracy, became instead a land of terror and torture, where human rights, the rule of law and democratic institutions were extinguished.

The horrors of the Pinochet regime and the related struggle for international human rights – arguably one of the most significant movements of our time - is the subject of an amazing new documentary, which premiered in the US and Chile this August, The Judge & the General. Perhaps most extraordinary is that the film portrays the personal transformation of the Chilean judge selected to hear the case against the former dictator. Judge Juan Guzman was appointed to his post by President Salvador Allende. And yet, when the coup came, Judge Guzman and his family toasted the event with drinks. During the many years of the dictatorship, Judge Guzman did not believe the stories about the human rights atrocities of the regime, assuming they were isolated incidents carried out without authorization. Shades of the lies the world was told after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.

Yet in the context of the investigation into the human rights abuses of the regime, Judge Guzman became a changed man. He realized - that like the “good Germans” under the Nazis - he had closed his eyes to the evil being carried out. Judge Guzman, like so many, had a strong need not to know. How many cannot say the same today? The film follows the stories of so many of the regime’s victims; often young, idealistic, hopeful for the future and therefore threats to Pinochet; they were tracked down like animals, disappeared, tortured, many never to return again, their loved ones not knowing whether they were dead or alive. Many of these persons were then killed and buried, sometimes thrown into the sea, for these were crimes against humanity and therefore had to be covered up with lies and secrecy. As the film shows, many of the bodies of those killed were only exhumed due to the human rights workers of Chile working with Judge Guzman.

Thus, in addition to revealing the horror of the dictatorship the film tells another tale as well, which stands as a beacon of hope in our time; that of the extraordinary efforts of the international human rights movement in Chile and beyond to hold leaders accountable for terror, torture and other crimes against humanity. It is a tale of extraordinary courage and tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds. In Chile itself, during the decades of horrific human rights abuses, ordinary citizens and human rights activists, often based in a Catholic Church transformed by Vatican II and the emergence of liberation theory, took up the slow, painful and patient work of documenting human rights abuses and seeking the redress of habeas corpus (literally, “to produce the body”) to free loved ones. Yet, as with the contemporary Bush administration in Guantanamo, their habeas corpus requests were denied time and time again. In addition, many times the families were told that no such person had ever been held by the state.

But outside of Chile a solidarity movement with the Chilean people and other victims of the dictatorship had sprung up and grown. One of the most significant efforts in this human rights struggle began with Joan Garces, a Spanish lawyer and close Allende associate who somehow escaped Allende’s fate by fleeing the Presidential Palace, at Allende’s urging, so as to “tell the world what happened here.” Garces, who later won the Right Livelihood award for his efforts, was the one who filed a “‘popular action’—a criminal case in the public interest” -- drawing on those parts of the Spanish legal system that allowed for universal jurisdiction for human rights abuses (Kornbluh, 2004: 466). Eventually what came out of this case were revelations about Operation Condor, in which Pinochet and his allies across Latin America and in the US worked to eliminate their political opponents; with such revelations forthcoming, the case eventually morphed into a broader human-rights lawsuit on behalf of victims of the Pinochet regime. But that would only come after a while.

Meanwhile in Chile, people endured the dictatorship but not without struggle and protest even in the face of heavy repression. In 1988 in a historic plebiscite the Chilean people voted on whether Pinochet should be allowed to remain in power; the majority said no. The day after the victory of the no vote, tens of thousands came out to demonstrate. Yet Pinochet managed to continue to hang onto power for a few more years and even beyond that to resist accountability for his crimes. And though the Spanish cases against him had not managed to touch the dictator with the rule of law, eventually an amazing turn of events took place that demonstrated the power of the human rights movement in our own time.

In 1998, Pinochet traveled to London with his wife to relax. When human rights activists heard about this, they maneuvered to have Spain invoke the European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism so as to get the British to hold Pinochet for his involvement in Operation Condor. His arrest in England was a landmark event, the first time that a dictator had been imprisoned outside of their home state for human rights abuses. Pinochet’s lawyers argued before the House of Lords that torture, murder and so forth were simply part of the “official ‘public functions’ of government,” so he could not be held and tried. Perhaps John Yoo, the former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in President Bush’s Department of Justice and the other “torture lawyers of Washington” responsible for writing the torture memos after September 11, 2001, which redefined torture so as to render the term almost meaningless and who further stipulated that this was a core aspect of the President’s Commander in Chief power, in which role the President could be bound by no law, found inspiration here. And not without reason, for though Yoo’s memos clearly paved the way for the effective abrogation of the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture - despite the US having signed and ratified both these treaties – and thus paved the way for subsequent Abu Ghraib torture scandal, not one high level US official has been held accountable for these war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Fortunately, the response in London to Pinochet’s lawyers was greater than that of the US Congress after Abu Ghraib. The Law Lords decided that government officials could be held accountable for such crimes, though later the decision was vacated due to a conflict of interest of one of the Lords; subsequently though, a second panel of judges ruled that Pinochet could be extradited, but only for human rights abuses committed after England signed the UN Convention against Torture in 1988. Unfortunately though, after having been imprisoned in England for some 500 days, eventually behind the scenes maneuvering led to the General’s release and return to Chile.

Yet the quest for justice then took another dramatic turn. Though Pinochet had orchestrated a seeming blanket amnesty in Chile for his crimes, efforts to ensure justice and the rule of law did not stop. In 1986 the Amnesty Law was challenged by Ana Luisa Gonzalez, whose 17 year-old son had been kidnapped and disappeared in what Chileans called the Caravan in Death. Ana argued that the crime was ongoing and thus not shielded by the Amnesty Law. When later Judge Guzman was selected to hear another case, he invoked this same argument, that the disappearances and related killings were ongoing crimes and thus not shielded by the Amnesty laws, a ruling later upheld by the Chilean Supreme Court. And so, by the time Pinochet returned from his London imprisonment, some 59 charges had been filed against him.

Though initially Pinochet still enjoyed immunity from prosecution for his crimes as a senator-for-life, Judge Guzman successfully petitioned the Appeals court to strip the former dictator of his immunity. Pinochet’s lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court and on August 8, 2000, the court upheld the stripping of Pinochet’s immunity for his crimes. Yet since it was more difficult initially to fix responsibility on Pinochet for violating the human rights of the domestic victims of his regime, the role of the General in orchestrating the international terrorist activities of Operation Condor assumed greater significance. For it was harder for the General to argue that he was not aware of the actions of his subordinates in assassinating opponents of the regime in half a dozen foreign countries. Most important of all here was the car bombing of Orlando Letelier, a former high level official in Allende’s government, who was killed along with his assistant, Ronni Moffit, by the Chilean secret police in Washington D.C. At the time, Orlando was serving as the director of the newly formed Transnational Institute, working with its affiliate, the Washington-based affiliate the Institute for Policy Studies and organizing against the Pinochet dictatorship. Up until September 11, 2001, this was the largest terrorist attack ever carried out in Washington, DC.

In 2006 in a historic election the Socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet, a survivor of torture and imprisonment under the US imposed dictatorship, won the Presidency and was inaugurated that March 11, in a sense bringing Chile full circle, especially as Pinochet died later that December, thereby escaping in death the legal judgment that was to be forthcoming for his crimes. Michelle’s family were Popular Unity/Allende supporters; her father, a General, was part of Allende’s government and after refusing exile was detained and tortured under the dictatorship and imprisoned until he died; his daughter and wife helped organize resistance to the regime. As a result Michelle and her mother were both imprisoned and tortured as well. Michelle’s own extraordinary career included a long-time commitment to the democratization of Chile, including working with children of the tortured and disappeared. In her inaugural victory speech, President Bachelet said: "Because I was the victim of hate, I've consecrated my life to turning hate into understanding, tolerance, and why not say it – love."

The film raises profound questions; as Judge Guzman was finally forced to confront the evil before him, he tells us that his investigations of the crimes of the regime, the torture, brutality and evil “opened the eyes of my soul.” In Latin America, it is a difficult though exciting time, as peoples movements across the continent and the victory of progressive government aim to reverse decades of divide and rule policies of the conquistadors and their descendants, most recently with the so-called neoliberal onslaught. Today, people are working for a true decolonization.

Yet today, in the United States and abroad, just as in Chile under the dictatorship, people are also being disappeared and tortured in violation of international human rights and international law, including by officials of the US government, private contractors and foreign regimes where the US had shipped prisoners through the practice of “extraordinary rendition.”

And yet, there has not been the extraordinary outcry needed to stop these practices, certainly not from many leading opinion-makers in the US, or by many of its residents, despite ongoing organizing by many groups such as the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC). How many, one wonders, have a “need not to know” as did Judge Guzman? How many can we bring to open their eyes to the evil which is ongoing before them and to take action to abolish torture from the face of the earth? How long will it take to restore the human dignity so violated by the torturers and those who protect their secrets and lies, many of whom now hold the highest elected offices in the United States of America, in both political parties. When, if ever, will the torturers and war-makers be brought to justice?

The long struggle of the Chilean people and their allies in the international human rights and solidarity movements shows us the possibility of hope and change against the greatest of odds. And yet these struggles also show the limits of the movement at this juncture in time; they reveal the impunity still exercised by those who were instrumental in orchestrating the coup, so they could go on to cheer the Bush administration in its prosecution of the Iraq War, notably President Nixon’s former National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger.

And of course, today, the world faces in the Bush administration, a government that carried out what at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal for the Axis powers was referred to as the supreme international crime, a war of aggression, in this instance against Iraq and based of course on lies. What followed the US invasion and occupation – in the context of a growing insurgency - was a program of widespread torture, assisted by what David Luban (2007) calls the “torture lawyers of Washington.”

Today the international human rights movement stands at a crossroads; for though in a landmark ruling in 1980 on the rights of torture victims, a US court noted that “The torturer, like the pirate of old, is hostis humanis generis—the enemy of all mankind,” and the US subsequently signed and ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, today the world’s greatest power, long known for supporting torture in client states around the world, has now embraced direct empire, direct torture while also subcontracting practice to some of the world’s most despotic regimes, all the while saying it now upholds freedom, democracy and the dignity of the individual.

One wonders when the US will have a President like Chile’s current head of state, one who along with her family and friends experienced imprisonment and torture and who worked on behalf of those victims and their children, rather than being a person responsible for inflicting such cruelty and pain.(2) Especially tragically clear is that Republican Presidential candidate John McCain – a strong supporter of the Iraq war - no longer qualifies in this regard. Though a survivor of torture himself, who had earlier spoken out eloquently against this practice, having been shot down while bombing Vietnam, over the last few years McCain tragically threw his lot in with the torturers. In 2006 McCain played an instrumental role in passing the Congressional Military Commissions Act/Torture Act. Later in February 2008 McCain voted in the Senate against a bill that banned forms of torture tactics such as waterboarding, despite his earlier remarks that this practice was illegal and was in fact torture.

There is a clear difference between the US Presidential candidates in this regard (as on a host of other issues), with Democratic Presidential candidate Obama having voted against the Military Commissions Act and for the ban against waterboarding and other forms of torture. And of course, as an African-American, Obama comes from a people who endured generations of torture and captivity during the days of Atlantic slavery.

Torture, practiced by some 150 governments today, lasts a lifetime. The wounds inflicted are not merely the deliberate cruelty and sadism of taking the helpless and inflicting unbearable physical and psychological pain upon them; torture, in fact, permanently disrupts the fundamental sense of safety and trust necessary to be in the world. The effects of complex post-traumatic stress disorder last forever, as Judith Herman (1997) shows in her book Trauma & Recovery. This is not to say that survivors cannot go on to live amazing and inspiring lives, as Sister Dianna Ortiz, founder and former director of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TAASC) has shown. But the act of torture and its lifelong effects should raise profound questions for all of humanity. As Sister Dianna Ortiz, brutally tortured in 1989 in Guatemala – another Latin American country whose democratically elected government was overthrown by the US, this time in 1954 - has stated, “It is the responsibility of every individual to work for the abolition of torture.” The 35th anniversary of what Chileans often call the “other September 11th” is a good time for all of us to ask ourselves the following question: do we feel what Sister Dianna says to be true; and if so, then what are we called upon to do as moral human beings?


Thanks to Tom Dobrzeniecki and Roger Burbach for helpful suggestions. I alone of course am responsible for the content.

(1) The murdered Marynoll sisters were Sisters Ita Ford, and Maura Clark, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missioner Jean Donovan; the murdered Jesuits included the Rector and Vice Rector of El Salvador’s most prestigious academic institution, the University of Central America (UCA), Fathers Egnatio Ellacuria and Ignacio Martin-Baro, along with Sociology Professor and Priest Father Segundo Montes, Father Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, Father Juan Ramon Moreno and Father Amando Lopez, along with the Jesuit’s cook and her daughter, Julia Elba Ramos and Celia Marisela Ramos (see The murders took place at the UCA and were carried out by the Atlacatl Battalion, a unit created and sustained by the US government. There are a host of books about the slayings and a number of books collecting many of the important writings of these scholar-activists which should be required reading for human rights, peace and social justice advocates. Among the eloquent sayings of the priests is that of Father Ignatio Ellacuria: “The struggle against injustice and the pursuit of truth cannot be separated nor can one work for one independent of the other.” See also Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy (1991) on these matters.

(2) It should be noted that President Bachelet has been subjected to a great deal of criticism in terms of domestic policy, especially in regards to the question of neoliberalism and indigenous rights. And Judge Guzman’s views have considerably evolved politically including in terms of internal Chilean politics and he has emerged as a supporter of the rights of indigenous peoples; as this however is a whole new subject, it will not be dealt with herein.

Additional Resources

Documentary film, The Judge & the General

For additional information about the coup in Chile and its aftermath, the Pinochet case, Operation Condor (including US involvement in this program) and related struggles in Latin America and across the globe, see:

Roger Burbach, The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism & Global Justice, Zed Books in association with The Transnational Institute, 2004.

Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide, South End Press, 1985.

Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, New York: Verso, 1991.

Noam Chomsky, Interventions, City Lights Books, 2007.

John Dinges, The Condor Years: How Pinochet & his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents, New Press, 2004.

Judith Herman, Trauma & Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Basic Books, 1997.

Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, Summit Books, 1984.

Peter Kornbluh, The Pinochet File, A National Security Archive Book, New Press, 2004.

J. Patrice McSherry, Predatory States: Operation Condor & Covert War in Latin America, Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

Peter Winn, ed., Victims of the Chilean Miracle: Workers & Neoliberalism in the Pinochet Era, 1973-2002, Duke University Press, 2004.

See also the Wikipedia entry on Chile’s President Bachelet and the interview with Sister Dianna Ortiz, as she stood vigil with other torture survivors from around the world as part of TASSC International (which is made up of survivors of torture) at the 24 hour vigil at the White House on the 10th anniversary of the UN day in support of torture victims and survivors on June 25 2007 to protest the Military Commissions Act and related US policies of torture

See also Sister Dianna Ortiz’s amazing memoir, The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth (Orbis Books, 2004).

Get involved with the campaign to abolish torture by going to Torture Survivors and Support Coalition International (TASSC)

See also Tom Reifer, review of David Luban’s Legal Ethics & Human Dignity (Cambridge Studies in Philosophy & Law, 2007), forthcoming in Law & Society Review.

See also Tom Reifer, The Question of Torture, forthcoming.

Tom Reifer, Associate Fellow, Transnational Institute;
cofounder, Committee for the Abolition of Torture

About the authors

Tom Reifer

Tom Reifer is currently Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of San Diego and publishes widely on global peace and social justice issues. He has also been a long-time activist in the anti-nuclear movement as well as a rank and file trade union activist. His specialty is the study of large-scale, long-term social change and world-systems analysis. 

He is currently working on a book "Lawyers, Guns & Money: Wall Street & the American Century"

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