“Justice” is a complex and serious subject; one that civilizations have grappled with for millennia –and the quest for “justice” has defined ancient civilizations and modern societies alike. When it comes to Iraq today, clearly, the question is not whether the deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and members of his regime should face justice for alleged crimes, crimes of war and crimes against humanity perpetrated under their tenure and at their behest, but how justice should be served.
The trial of Saddam Hussein and his seven co-defendants is far too important, far too weighty, to be carried out in the way it has been thus far. Having started as a tragic-comic televised show last month, the proceedings resumed this week in a fashion that makes a mockery of what should have been a historical trial. There is the extraordinary and unusual aspect of the trial –the first images, broadcast by the censors, allowing a sight of the defendants, men of past glory and power stripped of their regalian suits who now sit powerless, even if at times defiant, in the defendants’ box. But such images, as sensational as they may be, will not in and of themselves make this trial historic.
What would, however, make the trial of Saddam Hussein and his colleagues historical, is not the punitive prospect of the endgame –there is unanimity that the main defendant will be executed- or even the compensations that some plaintiffs may seek. For this trial to be truly historic will require that one aim be attained: the lifting of the veil of secrecy that shrouded a regime accused of gross violations of human rights and of other crimes defined by international law. The trial of Saddam Hussein and by extension of his regime, should have been a historical opportunity to seek the “truth” –a truth that a people, which has been the victim of crimes perpetrated by a political system, yearn for.
That was the case in very recent history, of the people of South Africa who have suffered at the hands of the Apartheid regime; the people of Cambodia who suffered under the reign of the Khmer Rouges; the people of Rwanda, victims of a genocide, the peoples of the former Yugoslavia, of Sierra Leone, of Liberia –not to mention the peoples who suffered and continue to suffer under foreign occupations. In most cases, trials of political leaders are a way to shed light on a traumatic period and help an entire people bring closure to crimes of the past and rebuild their fragmented societies. In a number of cases, “truth and reconciliation” commissions were established in conjunction with trials of political leaders of regimes accused of gross violations of human rights. And once the truth is known, and the collective psyche of entire societies is appeased, time would then have come to, as Nelson Mandela so poignantly expressed in the case of post-Apartheid South Africa, “let bygones be bygones”.
In the case of Iraq, persisting with the ongoing trials of Saddam Hussein and his co-defendants may satisfy the lust for vengeance of a segment – even if it is a large segment – of the Iraqi people. But it will hardly unveil the “truth” of a rather long period of time during which serious crimes were committed. It will eventually put a few men face-to-face with their executioners but hardly pave the way to the construction of a new Iraq. For the history of that country under the reign of Saddam Hussein is far too complex to be reduced to the killing of some 140 people in Dujail in 1982.
If Saddam Hussein should be afforded a “fair” trial, it is not merely to meet international standards of justice, but first and foremost not to miss a historical opportunity to write a shadowy part of Iraq’s history and its complex relationships with foreign powers, particularly the one that houses today Saddam Hussein’s palaces in the Green Zone, and under whose direct custody the former President remains.
A fair trial of Saddam Hussein would allow his defense to call important witnesses to testify. And it is not farfetched that the defense would call to the stand Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush senior, American ambassadors to Iraq, and other senior foreign officials who were in decision-making positions at the time when their Governments provided all kinds of support to the Iraqi leader during the periods when his regime perpetrated the worst crimes in the 1980s, including the notorious gassing of the Kurds at Halabja in 1988, not to mention Iraq’s invasion of Iran. In October 1989, let us recall, President Bush issued a national security directive, declaring that "normal relations between the United States and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests and promote stability in both the Gulf and the Middle East."
During a fair trial that should only take place when the security prerequisites are met, when the judicial authority is duly mandated by the Iraqi people, and when the country is no longer threatened by civil war or fragmentation, “justice” could and should be served –a justice that will appease an entire traumatized nation and will not simply be judged by history as another missed opportunity. For “Justice” is not merely a matter of providing a public (if censored) stage with judges in their black robes, defendants sitting in the dock, and witnesses behind curtains. It is, above all, the quest for “Truth”.