In a landmark decision, Britain’s Law Lords last week ruled 6-1 that Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, could be extradited to Spain on charges of human-rights abuses during his rule. The vote was even more decisive than the earlier 3-2 ruling that dismissed Mr. Pinochet’s immunity claim but was set aside amid allegations of bias on the part of one of the Law Lords. The ruling is a victory for human rights and a blow to any politician who had hoped to escape accountability for such abuses committed during his term in office.

Some call the verdict bittersweet, since the ruling was qualified. Mr. Pinochet was held to be not answerable for charges of human-rights abuses that occurred before Britain acceded to the international torture convention. But the important fact is this: The ruling clearly states that international treaties override the legal principle of “sovereign immunity” that traditionally has protected heads of state from criminal prosecution. Human-rights law has been immeasurably strengthened. And the margin of judges agreeing has grown with each ruling.

Reactions have been mixed. Victims of abuse during the general’s reign are rejoicing. Politicians in Spain, Britain and Chile are anxious about the potential economic and diplomatic backlash. Others are concerned about the impact of the ruling on other dictators, and point to the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia. They argue that the loss of immunity means that tyrants have nothing to lose. Having pushed his country to the brink of war, men like Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will not hesitate, they say, to engage in ethnic cleansing.

It is unlikely that any ruling would deter a man like Mr. Milosevic. In these cases, the world needs every possible device to see that they are held responsible for their actions. The shield of sovereign immunity should be shattered as quickly as possible. For other, lesser individuals who might still be deterred by the thought of criminal liability, the ruling is a powerful tool to see that justice is done. Britain’s Law Lords have done the world a service. Other governments should now take up the fight to protect human rights.

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