In recent years, an emerging international system of justice has begun to undermine the old calculus of tyrants and torturers. Recently they could commit their crimes with impunity, bludgeoning their nation's judicial system into submission. Now international war crimes tribunals have been created for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, national courts have indicted despots from other countries, and a permanent International Criminal Court will soon be established.
Yet international justice is attacked as elitist and undemocratic. Critics complain that home-grown national justice is being replaced by distant, unaccountable international tribunals. Decrying a new legal imperialism, they ask why foreign prosecutors should make critical decisions about justice concerning countries with which they have no personal connection.
Recent experience, however, suggests that, far from supplanting national law enforcement, international justice is beginning to spur toward national prosecutions, reinforcing rather than replacing local efforts.
The clearest case concerns former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. He left Chile for England in October 1998 confident that he would continue to enjoy impunity from prosecution until his dying days. This confidence lay in two legal gifts he had bestowed upon himself - an amnesty for his crimes and immunity as a senator-for-life. But once Pinochet was arrested in London, on charges filed by a Spanish judge, his carefully constructed edifice of impunity began to crumble.