The Inquisition, Part II?

Press release

More recently, Spanish judges have set their sights on bigger targets — the
United States, China and Israel. In January, a judge opened a probe of Israel
for alleged war crimes in Gaza. Then another sought to interview senior Chinese
officials about the crackdown in Tibet. And last month, Garzon himself
announced an investigation into U.S. detention policies at Guantanamo Bay,
focusing on whether several Bush administration lawyers and advisers created a
legal framework for torture. ad_icon

The backlash was swift, with Fox talk show host Bill O’Reilly threatening a
boycott of Spanish goods and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John
Bolton decrying the "pending Spanish inquisition" and accusing the Spaniards of
trying "to intimidate U.S. officials."

Multiple factors have made Spain a mecca for those seeking to redress
international injustices. The country has a legal system that grants judges
investigative powers and also a "universal jurisdiction" statute that permits
Spanish courts to hear cases involving serious abuses committed abroad. It has
a court, the Audiencia Nacional, that is dedicated to pursuing sensitive cases
and is unburdened by the routine domestic caseload. Spanish law also allows
citizens and advocacy groups to file criminal cases even when they are not
directly affected, a so-called acción pública. Combine these tools with
relentless personalities such as Garzon - a judge who has dabbled in politics
and has a keen public relations sense- and you have a recipe for a crusading

A few observers have wondered whether something deeper is at play in Spain’s
national psyche. Is the country working through the trauma of the 1939-75
dictatorship of General Francisco Franco by seeking to right the world’s
wrongs? Some Chileans and Argentines have detected a whiff of neocolonialism in
this attempt to adjudicate Latin America’s past sins. Is Spain seeking a
judicial empire to replace its territorial one? "We want to be universal
policemen," complained former President Jose Maria Aznar in a recent interview
in Spain’s La Razón.

Spain’s judicial adventurism has become an irritant for the country’s
diplomats and politicians, who must convince powerful allies and trading
partners that their colleagues on the bench intended no offense. Israeli
officials have accused Spain’s judiciary of advancing a political agenda,
whereas China has demanded "immediate and effective measures" to end the

Last week, the Spanish parliament overwhelmingly passed a measure that would
require judges to take only cases that had some demonstrable link to Spain. If
the measure is implemented, Spain will follow the path of Belgium, which scaled
back its own universal jurisdiction law in 2003 after a Belgian judge opened an
investigation of U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks for the use of cluster bombs in Iraq.
An American threat to move NATO headquarters out of Brussels persuaded Belgium
to alter its law.

For human rights groups, the proposed limits on the Spanish system would be
a setback. Activists like Reed Brody at Human Rights Watch see universal
jurisdiction as a valuable weapon for reaching otherwise untouchable
perpetrators. Although Spain’s prosecution of Pinochet might have been
unsuccessful, Brody argues that it jumpstarted Chile’s own judicial process and
encouraged that country to grapple more fully with its past.

Moreover, by pursuing officials from powerful countries, Spain’s judges are
redressing a perceived shortcoming in the nascent international criminal system
that has taken shape since the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The
international courts and tribunals established to address crimes against
humanity have focused on weak states, including Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda.
The assumption is that these nations are incapable of fairly judging their own.
The International Criminal Court, inaugurated in 2002, has investigated people
in Uganda, Congo and Sudan, but so far has not investigated, let alone
indicted, anyone from a Western country.

This apparent double standard has led to resentment among African leaders,
many of whom defended Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir when the ICC charged
him in March with crimes against humanity. "This tribunal is only there to
judge Africans," complained Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade.

Through their investigations, Spain’s judges have insisted that even
officials from liberal democracies such as the United States and Israel and
powerful players such as China won’t get a free pass. Spain may soon corral its
roving judges, but the question of whether international justice should apply
to the most powerful is here to stay.

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