|No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.|
Although the Torture Convention was adopted on December 10, 1984, it was not until General Augusto Pinochet was arrested in 1998 that the laws on the books were enforced in practice. As Reed Brody, the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch states, the arrest and the ruling by the House of Lords that Pinochet did not enjoy immunity as a former head of state were a wake-up call for tyrants and their victims everywhere. Countries such as Belgium and Spain, which had enacted broad universal jurisdiction legislation to fulfill their obligations under the Torture Convention, quickly attracted a long docket of criminal prosecutions filed against alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses, such as against the Foreign Affairs Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yerodia, the former president of Chad, Hissène Habré, and the Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon.
This new wave of international human rights cases has been criticized for interfering with diplomatic interests and foreign affairs, but the trend appears irreversible. The prospect of a permanent International Criminal Court entering into force in 2002 has also changed the nature of the international criminal justice scene. In the United States, a line of international human rights cases began in 1981 with the famous case of Filártiga. In that case, a US court awarded civil remedies under the Alien Torts Claim Act, an old and seemingly forgotten Act of Congress dating back to1789. In doing so, the court placed significant reliance on customary international law, and in particular on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in seeking to bring a Paraguayan torturer to justice.
Peter Danchin, Columbia University