Over the weekend, I listened to a radio retrospective marking the 35th anniversary of Orlando Letelier’s assassination in Washington, D.C. Letelier had been a minister of the government of elected socialist Salvador Allende who later fled to the United States to become a leader of the international opposition movement to Pinochet. Letelier and his American assistant, Ronni Moffitt, were killed by a car bomb planted under their car on Sept. 21, 1976, allegedly by assassins acting on the direct orders of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. How despicable–so the commentary went–that an abusive foreign government would be so bold as to track down one of its own nationals to a foreign state and then collude with paid killers to eliminate him.
How terribly ironic, then, to listen to our own president barely a week later praise the operation in which U.S. authorities did exactly that: track down U.S. national Anwar al-Awlaki and collude with Yemeni security forces to eliminate him in Yemen. Ironic indeed, because President Obama’s praise was directed not only at the American covert operatives involved in the attack but also at the Yemeni government and its security forces who had been working closely with the United States to carry out the mission.
Yes, those Yemeni security forces: the same ones who also stand accused of gross human rights violations in their desperate efforts to snuff out their own edition of the “Arab Spring” protests working their way across the region.
Just like Pinochet, Obama apparently believes it is permissible to mark his own citizens for death once he defines them as a threat to the nation. And just like Pinochet, he apparently has no trouble allying himself with actors who openly flaunt human rights in their quest for power. Breaking with the analogy, however, not even Pinochet had the audacity to proudly claim credit for his decision to order an assassination. Not so with Obama, who seems to take great pride in his use of drones to kill al-Qaeda operatives–regardless of their citizenship.
Of course, historically, the U.S. government saw things very differently. In the case of Letelier and Moffitt’s assassination, the United States insisted that amnesty not be granted to those involved in the killing, resulting in a 17-year process to bring those responsible for the crime to justice in a Chilean courtroom.
For someone who started his tenure as president of the United States by accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Obama has a surprising comfort level with the tools of tyrants: praising Yemen’s security forces while overlooking their mass killing, using the law of war to justify the killing of a U.S. citizen even though we are not at war with Yemen and denying American citizens their basic right to a fair trial when accused of terrorism.
Of course, Obama and other government officials routinely justify the killing of Al-Awlaki and other al Qaeda operatives by highlighting the despicable and illegal acts that Al-Awlaki and his followers allegedly have committed. Pinochet, of course, also justified the attack on Orlando Letelier because of the former minister’s supposed ties to international communism. Whatever the merits of these claims, we must demand more of democratic states and democratic leaders than “The Pinochet Standard.”
Clinical Lecturer, International Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic
Stanford Law School