Syria and September 11

PARIS – By chance, it appears that the US Congress will decide on or around September 11 whether to endorse President Barack Obama’s proposal to respond militarily to the Syrian government’s use of poison gas against civilians. The shadow of two previous events that took place on September 11 looms over the outcome – indeed, over the fact that the question is even being considered at all.

Long before September 11 became a day of infamy in the United States, it acquired similar significance in Chile, where 40 years ago, on September 11, 1973, the armed forces, led by General Augusto Pinochet, overthrew the country’s democratically elected government. More than any other event of our era, that violent coup was responsible for launching both the contemporary global movement for human rights and the American movement to promote human rights internationally.

In part, this reflected the new regime’s cruelty. More than three thousand people were murdered or “disappeared” during Pinochet’s rule, thousands more were tortured by his forces, and tens of thousands were forcibly exiled. To an even greater extent, however, the motivation that spurred the human-rights movement was revulsion worldwide, including in the US, against American aid to Pinochet’s forces, a policy directed by President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

In the US, members of Congress turned the coup into a platform for efforts to promote human rights. They condemned developments in Chile, held hearings about the importance of promoting human rights, and adopted legislation – over President Gerald Ford’s veto – requiring that human-rights standards guide US foreign policy.