Trying Saddam

Why the capture of Iraq's Ace of Spades is causing a headache for Bush and Blair.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Over the past year, President George W Bush has described Saddam as wicked, evil, ruthless, and ‘a guy who tried to kill my dad’. Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke suggested he was ‘the worst ruler in world history’, carrying out acts of ‘torture and oppression, the likes of which the world has not seen before’. Tony Blair said Saddam was a ‘ruthless tyrant’. So why, since this most evil dictator ever was found down a hole in Tikrit, has the question of his human rights, dignity and right to a fair trial dominated the headlines, causing, in the words of one report, a ‘headache for Bush and Blair’?

No sooner had the news of Saddam’s capture broken than human rights groups were queuing up to hold America and Britain to account. Human Rights Watch made headlines around the world when it criticised the televising of Saddam’s medical check-up as an affront to his rights as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention. Amnesty International insisted that Saddam should not be subjected to torture or ill-treatment. Both groups have demanded that he should receive a fair trial, helping to put the dampers on the muted triumphalism that greeted his capture and imprisonment.

Instead of Saddam being ‘paraded in chains past cheering crowds’ (how one report described what might have happened to a similar figure in an earlier era), Bush and Blair have promised that he will receive all the rights accorded to him under international law. Even when Bush momentarily lost the plot and said ‘this disgusting tyrant deserves the ultimate justice’ – translated into newspaper headlines as ‘Bush wants Saddam executed’ – he also said that there should be no ‘kangaroo court’ for Saddam, that it was up to the Iraqi people to decide his fate, and that he would be ‘treated humanely by US troops’ (1).

In this post-Saddam spectacle, where Bush and Blair have to herald Saddam’s rights and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can hold Western elites to account on the international stage, America and Britain are being hoist on their own petard. Having made upholding human rights and executing international justice the rallying cries of Western intervention, Western elites now find themselves being judged by exacting standards. Having justified their third world ventures of the past 15 years in the language of humanitarianism, America and Britain now find there are limits to the kind of action they can take around the world.

The end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s gave rise to new rounds of Western intervention in the third world – interventions based, not on the selfish, national interests of Western elites, but on defending beleaguered peoples against ruthless dictators and upholding human rights across the globe. With the end of the battles over territory and influence between West and East that defined the Cold War period, many argued that Western intervention could finally become a force for good, for advancing genuine democracy and rights in the third world. For Guardian columnist Martin Kettle, it is because we now have this ‘empire based on laws and freedom’ that even someone like Saddam has to be treated well (2).

Yet those on the receiving end of humanitarian intervention have experienced little of Kettle’s ‘freedom’, or much of his ‘laws’. In Somalia in 1993, 4000 were killed by UN forces over a 12-month period; 700 were killed on one night, 5 September 1993. Following the bloody civil war in the Balkans from 1992 to 1995, the UN occupied the newly independent states and continues to dominate political institutions in that region. In Yugoslavia in 1999, an estimated 2000 civilians and 600 military personnel were killed during Prime Minister Blair and President Bill Clinton’s war over Kosovo. For many in the third world, there has been little that is humanitarian in humanitarian intervention.

The drive for humanitarian intervention was in the West, rather than in the suffering of people in the third world. In the confusion and uncertainty of the post-Cold War world, the impulse was moral renovation on the part of Western elites – played out in foreign fields.

This was similarly the driving force behind the rise of ‘international justice’ in the 1990s. In 1993, the UN Security Council set up an international tribunal to try those accused of war crimes in Yugoslavia; in 1997, the war crimes tribunal for the Rwandan conflict of 1994 got under way. It is striking that ‘war crimes’ are always committed by people over there, whether Serb militamen or Hutus or Ba’athists, and judged by the civilised nations of the UN Security Council. For all the talk of justice, the setting up of war crimes trials in the 1990s was another means for Western elites to assert some moral purpose. As Kirsten Sellars argues in The Rise and Rise of Human Rights, war crimes tribunals are in reality ‘political weapons’ wielded by the West (3).

However, while the humanitarian agenda may have occasionally boosted the domestic fortunes of Western elites, it also impacted on their ability to act decisively in the international arena. By disavowing selfish, national interests, and by talking up the rights of people in the third world, America and Britain find themselves launching wars that have to care as well as kill – having to show consideration for others while occupying their country and launching bombing raids from on high. By making fairly typical atrocities or acts of war, such as those that took place in Yugoslavia, into ‘war crimes’, the West helped to bring in some high, and often unrealistic, standards for its own military interventions too. The problems thrown up for Western elites by the reorganisation of international affairs around humanitarianism and justice can most clearly be seen in this year’s ill-fated intervention in Iraq.

Early on in the conflict, the collapsing Iraqi authorities filmed five American prisoners of war (POWs) and showed the images on Iraqi TV. US officials were quick to condemn them. US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld accused the Iraqis of violating American prisoners’ rights under the Geneva Convention. ‘What they are doing is wrong, showing prisoners of war in a humiliating manner…. People who mistreat prisoners will be treated as war criminals.’ (4) By describing even the filming of POWs as a ‘war crime’, the Americans made themselves hostages to fortune. Before long, coalition commanders found themselves accused of committing war crimes for, among other things, ‘pistol-whipping’ Iraqis, shouting orders at prisoners, and manhandling civilians.

US officials also criticised Iraqis for filming prisoners while they were clearly distressed, claiming that this showed a reckless disregard for ‘international norms’. Can they really have been surprised when similar charges were made against them for filming Saddam’s medical check-up? It may have been Saddam – a dictator despised by many commentators and NGOs in the West and a dream target for the coalition – but having redefined war crimes to include filming prisoners, US officials found that even showing Saddam on TV was problematic. One NGO spokesman described the filming of Saddam as ‘unacceptable’ (5).

America and Britain said their war in Iraq was most definitely not about oil, or national interests, or even personal vengeance. Rather, this was a disinterested war for the ‘liberation’ of the Iraqi people, in which, according to one coalition spokesman, the Ba’athists who had dominated Iraq would be ‘tried fairly by an international court’. Now, lo and behold, many around the world are holding the coalition to its promise, insisting that Saddam should not be filmed, but should be treated humanely and receive a fair trial – causing further headaches for Bush and Blair.

The reorganisation of international affairs away from national interests towards humanitarianism has had another impact – it has created the space for the rise of NGOs, which now play a key role in judging Western interventions and holding Western elites to account. During the humanitarian period, the West justified its interventions on the basis of ever-more selfless goals, in the name of defending the human rights of others – a process that did much to undermine the explicit exercise of national interests in the international arena. By effectively ceding their authority to wage war in their own name and interests, America and Britain helped to give rise to organisations and groups that claim to speak on behalf of beleaguered peoples and the ‘international community’.

Consider the central role that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have played since the capture of Saddam. As soon as it was announced that Saddam was in American custody, these two groups rushed in to give their verdicts – on how Saddam was being treated, where he should be kept, and what should happen to him in the long run. Their views were given great prominence in the international coverage of Saddam’s capture, and no doubt played a role in eliciting promises from both Bush and Rumsfeld that Saddam would be treated fairly. By launching disinterested wars in the name of others, Western elites unintentionally invite those who are seen as genuinely disinterested actors – caring, concerned NGOs – to offer their opinion on the conduct of war and its aftermath.

It is not the strength of the NGOs’ arguments – and certainly not because they have any democratic mandate or mass support – that explains their rise into this position as the judgers of war. Rather, they are parasitical on the humanitarian climate, filling the vacuum created by humanitarianism. As states’ interests in international affairs have been downplayed over the past 10 to 15 years, so non-state actors have come to the fore, assuming a role beyond their size and level of support. The ability of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to lay down the law to America about how it should treat Saddam reveals less about the strength of the NGOs, than it does about the weakness of America and its own claims in international politics today.

Indeed, for all their radical posturing, groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have done much to pave the way for Western wars and interventions in the name of ‘human rights’. Human Rights Watch played a not unimportant role in justifying Gulf War II. It has published numerous reports over the past 10 years about the Ba’athists’ atrocities and alleged weapons programmes – reports which have been cited by, among others, Bush officials, UN officials, and ‘US Resolve’, a very pro-war website based in America. Such NGOs are best understood, not as radical critics of Western intervention, but as its parasites – a pain in the imperial beast’s arse, perhaps, but at the same time feeding off the beast and following its every move.

At the end of 2002, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer urged Iraqi dissidents to use ‘one single bullet’ to take out Saddam. Now, as the capture of Saddam proves more complicated and problematic than many expected, the White House and others must be wishing that one of their own soldiers had used a ‘single bullet’ on Saddam as he climbed out of that spider-hole in Tikrit.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Bush wants Saddam executed, This Day News, 18 December 2003

(2) Saddam’s arrest is a mixed blessing for his captors, Martin Kettle, Guardian, 16 December 2003

(3) See The rise and rise of human rights, by Jon Holbrook

(4) Black army specialist is one of five Prisoners of War,, 24 March 2003

(5) See After Saddam, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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