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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Spanish judges' human rights campaign comes under pressure

May 13, 2009

By Sinikka Tarvainen
Monsters and Critics
May 12, 2009

Madrid - More than a decade after the Spanish
judiciary launched its crusade for universal
justice, pressure is mounting on the government
to restrict judges' scope for investigating
alleged human rights crimes in other countries.

Israel has reacted angrily to a Spanish inquiry
into a 2002 Gaza bombing, urging the government
and judiciary to do their 'utmost' to stop what
it describes as a Palestinian attempt to 'exploit' the Spanish judicial system.

The Chinese embassy in Madrid called on the
government to take 'immediate' measures against a
probe into alleged deaths and disappearances in
Tibet, warning about 'damage' to bilateral relations.

And at a time when Spanish Prime Minister Jose
Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government is hoping to
reinforce relations with the United States, two
Spanish inquiries into torture at the Guantanamo
prison camp are threatening to create friction with Washington.

'We cannot become the judicial cops of the
world,' said Carlos Divar, president of the
judges' organ CGPJ, arguing that such a role
would create 'daily diplomatic conflicts.'

Such criticism is not shared by many human rights
activists, who say Spanish judges have played an
important role in increasing human rights accountability.

The government was nevertheless expected to seek
a legal reform limiting international human
rights investigations to cases with obvious links to Spain.

The Spanish judiciary first became known for its
interest in issues of universal justice when
National Court judge Baltasar Garzon made a vain
attempt to extradite former Chilean dictator
Augusto Pinochet from London in 1998.

The National Court, where Garzon works, is now
investigating about a dozen cases affecting eight
countries: the United States, China, Guatemala,
El Salvador, Rwanda, Morocco, Germany and Israel.

Judges at the court are handling two inquiries
into torture at Guantanamo, one of which could
lead them to investigate former US
attorney-general Alberto Gonzales and five other
former officials of the George W Bush administration.

Judges are also probing seven Israelis, including
former defence minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer,
over a 2002 Gaza bombing that killed a Hamas
leader and 14 others; and eight Chinese political
or military leaders, including three ministers, over the situation in Tibet.

Initially, such investigations involved Spanish
citizens, but the court has also begun accepting
cases with no links to Spain, under the principle
of universal justice for grave crimes such as genocide.

Spanish legislation makes it relatively easy for
associations to lodge judicial complaints related
to universal justice, a factor which has led to
such cases proliferating in Spain, the daily El Pais reported.

However, the Spanish investigations have had
little effect, the only conviction being that of
former Argentine navy captain Adolfo Scilingo.

He was detained in Spain and sentenced to more
than 1,000 years in prison for helping to throw
government opponents down from airplanes during
Argentina's 1976-83 military dictatorship.

Despite the lack of direct results, the inquiries
are seen as having increased pressure on
suspected human rights abusers, making it more
difficult for them travel abroad for fear of
arrest, and encouraging their judicial pursuit in
countries such as Chile and Argentina.

US media interest in the Spanish probes into
abuses at Guantanamo could contribute to the
prison camp coming under legal scrutiny in the
United States, human rights campaigners argue.

'As long as governments do not have the political
will to create an efficient tribunal, the only
way is to introduce universal justice in the
largest possible number of countries,' lawyer Manuel Olle said.

Opponents of such probes accuse judges of seeking
notoriety by launching high-profile international
investigations while their overstretched courts
have difficulties dealing with ordinary delinquency at home.

Others point out that Spain is ill-placed to
judge human rights violations in other countries,
given that it has not dealt judicially with the
1939-75 dictatorship of General Francisco Franco,
who is held responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of his opponents.

But above all, the government is keen to avoid
diplomatic problems at a time when Spain is
trying to increase its global stature, seeking an
entry into the Group of 20 (G20) and a bigger
role in attempts to achieve peace in the Middle East.

'Unequivocally democratic' countries should
investigate their own alleged human rights abuses
before Spain gets involved, Justice Minister Francisco Caamano said.

Spanish cross-border human rights investigations
have also come under pressure from prosecutors
expressing reserves about one of the Guantanamo
probes, and opposing the case against Israel.
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