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Spain Extradites Argentine from Mexico
under Universal Jurisdiction

In a June 2003 decision, the Mexican Supreme Court allowed the extradition of Argentine ex-navy officer Ricardo Cavallo to Spain, where a court has charged him with genocide and terrorism. Cavallo is accused of torturing and killing suspected dissidents during the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

Cavallo, who denies the charges against him, was arrested in August 2000 while doing business in Mexico under an assumed name. He is accused of several murders, 100 kidnappings, and more than 200 forced disappearances. Many of his alleged victims were Spanish immigrants to Argentina.

Cavallo was indicted in November 1999 by Spain’s National Audience court, or Audiencia Nacional. He will be the first Argentine military official to face trial for alleged crimes against humanity since Argentina passed two amnesty laws in the1980s, the full stop law and the due obedience law. Spain, led by National Audience judge Baltasar Garzón, has made efforts to put an additional 119 Argentine military officers on trial for similar crimes, but has been thwarted by the absence of an extradition agreement between Spain and Argentina. In July 2003, though, the Argentine government annulled a decree prohibiting the extradition of Argentines suspected of torture or murder in the so-called “Dirty War." The move could pave the way for many officers and former junta leaders to be tried abroad.

In August 2003, Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies voted to overturn the two amnesty laws enacted in the 1980s. If the Senate does the same, Argentina could begin to try its accused war criminals itself.

Advance for Universal Jurisdiction

Human rights activists have hailed Mexico’s decision to extradite Cavallo as a success for universal jurisdiction ­ the idea that certain crimes are so heinous that they can be tried by the courts of any country, regardless of where the crimes occurred or what nation's citizens were involved. Reed Brody, director of special prosecutions for Human Rights Watch, said that “this will be the first time that one country extradites a person to another to stand crimes for something that happened in a third.” For more on the principle of universal jurisdiction, see Amnesty International’s explanation or the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights’ international justice page, or take a look at the Princeton Principles. Fearing that universal jurisdiction is prone to political abuse, because it allows local courts to go after foreigners, a group of experts proposed these principles as guidelines to try to ensure due process and fairness.

Previous efforts to exercise universal jurisdiction have failed. In the late 1990s, Baltasar Garzón ­ the same Spanish judge who has led the cases against Cavallo and other Argentine suspects ­ tried to have former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet extradited from London to Madrid to face trial on human rights charges. He was ultimately found unfit to stand trial and released after 17 months of house arrest. For a chronology of Pinochet’s extradition battle in the UK and subsequent legal struggles in Chile, see the BBC’s timeline here. Idi Amin, the Ugandan leader whose reign left more than 100,000 people dead, now lives in Saudi Arabia, which has resisted attempts to try him, and efforts to extradite two Haitians ­ former military ruler Raul Cedras, who lives in Panama, and former paramilitary leader Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, who resides in New York - have also failed. For a more complete list of exiled dictators who have not been subject to prosecution, refer to Human Rights Watch’s backgrounder.

For more on the trial of Augusto Pinochet, please see our 2001 hot topic, Pinochet Declared Unfit for Trial in Chile.
  • Anna Segall, Punishing Violations of International Humanitarian Law at the National Level: A Guide for Common Law States, ICRC Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law, Geneva, 2001.

Written August 1, 2003; Last updated August 18, 2003.

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