Leading Article: The General has a point

WHENEVER left and right agree, it is often a fair assumption that they are both wrong. More complex - and more interesting - are those cases where left and right disagree, but when they both manage to be wrong in different ways. Such is the case of General Augusto Pinochet, no less so after Jack Straw allowed the extradition proceedings against him to proceed.

The left's error is its tendency to double standards, or what has been more precisely called an "asymmetry of indulgence". It is more than 50 years since Orwell identified the left's problem as wanting to be anti- fascist without being anti- totalitarian, and that remains true still. Is it worse to be killed by the thugs serving some fascistic South American dictator than by the secret police of a "people's republic"? If Peter Mandelson thinks it would be "gut-wrenching" for Pinochet to go unpunished, how do his guts feel when the Prime Minister butters up the leaders of a Chinese regime that has killed more than the entire population of Chile several times over?

But the right's error, not to say its sheer nastiness, is even clearer. Tory politicians or polemicists have defended a man who was responsible for murdering and torturing numerous political opponents. The fact that Chile is a friendly country, and may have given us help during the Falklands war, is neither here nor there. What does it say about Baroness Thatcher that she is on friendly, tea-taking terms with a brutal tyrant? How can the right actually admire this man?

Ludicrously enough, the arguments Lady Thatcher, Lord Lamont and sundry right-wing columnists use to extentuate Pinochet are similar to those the left so often stands accused of using. Allende's threat to Chile couldn't be fought with clean hands; Pinochet's methods may have offended against the strictest canons of human rights (as Lady Thatcher graciously concedes), but he restored Chile to stable government and economic progress; or, as Stalin's defenders used to say, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. Besides which, "double standards" cut two ways. That mass- murders in China, Africa or the Balkans go unpunished is not in itself an honourable juristic argument for acquitting Pinochet. The law is concrete as well as abstract. A man accused of grievous bodily harm at the Old Bailey would not be well advised to plead in mitigation various unpunished killings in Manchester or Glasgow.

And yet there are considerations that go beyond these sterile and ugly slanging matches. From an enlightened, an altruistic perspective, Chile as a trading partner is much less important than the future of Chilean democracy. There are unmistakable imperialistic overtones in the rage against Pinochet, to which the Chileans are not deaf. We can't send a gunboat any more, but we can practise a form of Palmerstonian moral fist- shaking not well-received by those at whom our fists are shaken.

Enthusiasts for the extradition procedure might have reflected that the countries concerned in it could not have been better chosen to inflame Chilean national sensibilities. The country from which Pinochet is to be extradited is Great Britain, which largely owned the Chilean economy in neo-colonial fashion for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the country where he is meant to be sent is Spain, the original colonial power. Chileans are entitled to point out that the overwhelming number of those who suffered at the general's hands were Chilean rather than Spanish or British.

It is no wonder that the question transcends left and right in Chile: the foreign minister who came to London to plead for Pinochet's return to Chile is a socialist. Many Chileans feel very strongly that their country is the one which should judge its own history and those who made it. And if the healing process in Chile since Pinochet left office is based somewhat hypocritically on a blind eye to torture and murder, it would be ludicrous for us to condemn that, when our own "peace process" in Ulster is founded on exactly the same basis.

"Let justice be done though the heavens fall" sounds an inspiring maxim, but it is often a foolish one, and it can never be followed in international relations. The letter of the law is not the same as justice, and justice itself has to be balanced with political reality and the practical consideration of the greatest good of the greatest number. Almost everything said by, as well as on behalf of, Augusto Pinochet is contemptible. But when he said in court on Friday that "I do not recognise the jurisdiction of any other court, except in my country, to try me" he may for once have had a point. We hope that by one means or another it is possible to send this odious old man back to his own country and the judgement of history.