The World on Trial

BAGHDAD — Sorry for the delay in the filing yesterday. After we went into the press gallery for the trial, I was kind of cut off from the computer except for the pool reports which had to take precedence. And then, returning from the courthouse to the Baghdad Convention Center was an ordeal … not to mention the nighttime dash through the city traffic. Anyway, by the time I got back home, I was neck deep in new files, and I had to put the blog on hold. *Sigh* Serving multiple masters is difficult.
Anyway, by now, the accounts of the the last two days are “on the wires.”: The trial is descending into dark comedy. While yesterday we had three of the defendants — Ali Dayih Ali, Mohammad Azzawi Ali and Abdullah al-Roweed, all local Ba’ath officials from Dujayl — in the dock, today there were _no_ defendants present. Saddam, Barzan al-Tikriti (former head of the _mukhabarat_) and Taha al-Ramadan (former Iraqi vice president) refused to attend and the others were prevented from attending “”Because they caused chaos and noise outside the courtroom, the court has decided to keep them away,” chief judge Raouf Abdel Rahman said.
What does _that_ mean? So far, there’s been explanation. The trial has been recessed until Feb. 13, however. Which is just as well. No war crimes trial can have even the patina of legitimacy if essentially it’s _in absentia._ Ironically, that’s one of the complaints the defense has against Judge Rahman: He was twice tried _in absentia_ by Saddam’s regime for anti-government actions over the 1988 massacre in Halabja and he might have biases against the lead defendant! Only in Iraq can such naked irony be completely ignored with a straight face.
In public, and even in private, U.S. officials express no concern over the direction the trial is taking or its increasing perceived lack of legitimacy. With many Iraqis — including some in the lame-duck government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari — openly saying just hang the bastard already and international observers calling into question the fairness of the procedings, the U.S. is looking increasingly alone as it continues to insist on the need and fairness for the trial. But for once in Iraq, the U.S. is right.
Allow me to explain: It’s not right to say the trial is fair; it’s not transparent and the tribunal’s legality is murky, considering the illegal origins of the war that brought the current government to power. On the one hand, Iraq is a fixture of U.S. policy. Because of the breathtaking incompetence of the post-war planning, the U.S. — and the world — will be saddled with the issue of Iraq for a long time to come. Because of this very big immovable and unchangeable fact, the debate over whether the war is legal _in the context of proposing and carrying out U.S. foreign policy_ is moot: the world is stuck with “the Iraq problem.”
But in terms of setting up a tribunal and establishing a legal precedent for trying heads of state for alleged war crimes, the legality of the war is very much an issue. Precedent matters in the realm of law, and the institutional structures built by an occupation and its progeny had better be well-constructed indeed.
However, and this is a big “however,”: Saddam absolutely must be tried. He must be tried, judged and sentenced. He was — and likely still is — a horrible man, responsible for the deaths of thousands. If he committed the acts he’s accused of, he deserves the punishment meted out, and whether he was America’s bestest buddy in the region during the 1980s is beside the point. (Remember, he also bought a lot of weapons from the Soviets, sold oil to the Chinese and had the full support of European governments as a bulwark against Iranian expansionism at the same time.)
Which is why he must be tried in an international tribunal. There are two reasons for this, one of them practical. The practical one first: The Iraqis are not really in a position to provide a fair trial. The security situation has led to multiple deaths among the defense team and Saddam’s crimes are too widespread not to affect almost everyone in the country, especially one with such strong tribal ties. A wrong done to a man here is a wrong done to his entire family and community. Because of this, the trial should be moved outside the country and handed over to an international tribunal.
Second, it is precisely that he was supported — or at least not roundly condemned — by so many in the West and around the world that an international tribunal is necessary. Saddam must pay for his crimes, yes, but the governments who supported him in his terror should know that they’re on trial, too. An international tribunal will do that, at least symbolically. And while they won’t suffer the same penalty as Saddam — you can’t hang entire governments very easily — their citizens have a right to know what their governments at least tacitly endorsed in the name of “national interest.” And the vast majority of the people living in democracies must own up to the fact that they didn’t care enough to find out what their governments were up to regarding Saddam.
In an ideal world, governments are those of laws, not of men. In the real world, however, governments are staffed by men (and women) who saw Saddam as less evil than the Ayatollah Khomeini. They exchanged the ideals of freedom and respect for human rights for cheap oil. They sold out the Iraqi people who paid the price.
Big deal? Welcome to realpolitik? Yeah, I know. But if we’re ever to avoid more Iraqs, we have to begin to realize that support for evil in the name of national interest often gets us into wars 20 years down the road. It also gets a lot of people killed. And frankly, why are Iraqi lives worth less than American lives? Why should Iraqis have to suffer under Saddam or endure watching their friends shredded by car bomb blast so that Americans can feel safe from Khomeini or from terrorists? Why should Saudi Arabians suffer a corrupt monarchy so we can enjoy SUVs, for that matter?
Saddam deserves to hang for his crimes, but as citizens of democracies, we are culpable, in part, for what our governments did to help him commit them. And an international trial outside Iraq would be a step in forcing us to facce up to our own transgressions against the ideals enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the U.N. Charter and the International Declaration of Human Rights. It might also be a step toward owning up to our collective trespasses against the Iraqi people. We owe it to them… and to ourselves.