Human rights activists on a roll

CATCHING PINOCHET 'IS A START'

The matronly Pinochet supporter has tears in her eyes as she asks a foreign visitor why the world has so much against her hero: "His was the best government Chile ever had that saved us from the worst we ever had."

It's a question that stumps many Chileans. But others say it's because the world is using the case of Pinochet - a man universally held up as the archetypal rights-abusing dictator - to feel its way through the new international interest in calling past leaders to task for human rights violations.

"You can only explain this global focus on Pinochet if you place his case in a new global context," says Santiago political analyst Francisco Rojas Aravena. He says there's an invigorated effort to make pledges to respect for universal human rights something enforceable. He cites two examples: Jewish organizations' suit against Swiss banks for harboring ill-gotten Nazi gold and the pope's apology for the Catholic Church's connections to the Nazi regime. And Europe's frustration over its inability to stop killings in the former Yugoslavia "may very well have played a part" in its offensive against Pinochet.

And if there is a new international enforcement of human rights in the making, it's something some Chileans view positively. "I think the Pinochet case shows us the beginning of international law that will send the message around the world that these kinds of violations of basic rights won't go unpunished," says Eugenio Vallejo, a retired Santiago bank employee. "Of course it's still in infancy and nothing near perfect," he adds, acknowledging a glaringly uneven and arbitrary application of international rights principles. "But it's a start."

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