If only, some Ministers might wish, it were as true over the Pinochet case. There, a majority of the Law Lords decided, on the widest interpretation of the law, to allow the general's extradition to Spain to face charges of crimes against humanity. Had the majority swung to the narrower interpretation of the law, the Home Secretary might at this moment been cheerfully mouthing regrets as he explained how he had no other option but to let the tyrant flee.
It's no good declaiming at the illogicality of it all. It is odd that Pinochet should face trial in Spain rather than in his own country where his crimes were committed. It is wrong that the victims of torture in Japanese occupied lands should be refused even a proper apology, whilst the victims of Pinochet should be able to reach out to him through courts which have no direct interest in the case. It is no doubt politically painful to have to explain this if you are a British businessmen doing your best by your company, and your country, in Chile.
The terrible bugbear of "precedent" has always been the basis of criticisms of any decision that takes law into the unknown, just as it has served as an excuse to keep judgement firmly under control.
The knock-on effects of offering compensation to all the millions of Asians maltreated by their Japanese conquerors (let alone all the women raped, murdered, or forced into sexual slavery) have been more than sufficient to keep the lines tight in Tokyo. The implications of the Pinochet judgement have been enough to scare some of even the most liberal lawyers to believe that it is opening a floodgate beyond the competence of the British courts, that will have every court in the West tied up in cases for generations to come.
But that is the way that the big decisions have always flowed. The Nuremberg trials were of doubtful legality, a stratagem thought up by the victors of the Second World War to enable peace to be followed by reconciliation in the reconquered lands.
Lord Mansfield set the whole course of the abolition of slavery rolling by a decision to free an individual slave who had run away in Britain, that set few absolute principles, said nothing on the issue of ownership, and took another half-century before its logical conclusion of the abolition of the state of slavery in the British possessions in 1834.
The reality is that politics and the law have always marched together, along with the cry for justice. It is when the law seems too much at variance with justice that the political strains begin to show, just as it is when political acts seem too much at variance with the law that the judges decide to act, just as they did in the course of the last government.
Which is why Britain must not allow the case for the Japanese Prisoners of War to rest solely with the law, but to pursue it by every political means possible. And it is why Jack Straw has every reason now to retreat to the confines of the law in ensuring that General Pinochet is sent to face his accusers.Reuse content