Why Saddam’s trial is so trying for the coalition

The 'trial of the century' has descended into a 'comedy show'.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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The trial of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad has descended into farce. No one seems to take it seriously. Saddam shouts at the judges and moans about having to walk up four flights of stairs to the courthouse because the lift is broken; today the court is in session but without Saddam, who yesterday told the judge to ‘go to hell’. Coalition officials, meanwhile, seem to want little to do with the whole process. Iraqi vice-president Ghazi al-Yawer recently despaired: ‘I don’t know who is the genius producing this farce…it’s a comedy show.’ (1)

The comedy of Saddam’s trial exposes a contradiction at the heart of the coalition’s venture in Iraq: it has extraordinary power, but with little legitimacy behind it. It can invade a state, topple its regime in a matter of weeks, and pull its former president from a hole in the ground and put him on trial before the world – but it has neither the international legitimacy nor the local connections that might make such a trial a serious or meaningful affair. The daily reports and snapshots from the courthouse may have exposed Saddam as a ranting bearded has-been; more strikingly they have exposed the emptiness of the coalition’s mission.

Some predicted that Saddam’s trial would be a showtrial, an opportunity for America and Britain to demonstrate their moral superiority in international affairs by loudly accusing this tinpot tyrant. In fact, it has been decidedly unshowy. The coalition has distanced itself from the proceedings, instead handing authority to local Iraqi judges who apparently represent the aggrieved Iraqi people in this trial of a former Iraqi leader. Coalition officials insist this is a local trial, for local people.

This is not to say that the coalition has no involvement: Britain spent around £2million on training the judges, and the US provided $128million towards the investigation and prosecution processes (2). Yet that was more about outsourcing, pushing responsibility for trying Saddam on to local forces. The coalition’s aim seems to be to disavow responsibility for the trial and its outcome – and, by association, for the war and occupation that led to this process – rather than to take ownership of the trial as an international advert for their moral and political credentials.

That is in stark contrast to earlier war crimes trials of the post-Cold War period. In the 1990s, setting up tribunals to try war criminals from various parts of the third world became an important part of the West’s attempt to rehabilitate its moral authority around the globe. In 1993, the UN Security Council set up an international tribunal to try those accused of war crimes in the Former Yugoslavia; in 1997, the war crimes tribunal for the Rwandan conflict of 1994 got under way. There is also one for Sierra Leone. These were highly political endeavours. It was striking, for instance, that war crimes always seemed to be committed by people ‘over there’, whether they were Bosnian Serb militiamen or Hutus with machetes. As Kirsten Sellars argues in The Rise and Rise of Human Rights, these tribunals were in reality ‘political weapons’ wielded by the West, further attempts to imbue Western governments with a sense of moral purpose by contrasting them favourably with the barbarians in Eastern Europe or Africa (3).

Unlike Saddam’s trial, these earlier tribunals were explicitly international. The alleged war criminals were taken out of their own territory and tried on an international stage: so Slobodan Milosevic and various other former leaders and fighters in the Yugoslav wars have been taken to The Hague in the Netherlands, while Rwanda’s Hutu leaders were tried by a UN-authorised court in Tanzania. Indeed, these tribunals were built on the very idea that local authorities could not be trusted to try war criminals, and only the ‘international community’ could really ensure that justice was done.

This was a deeply undemocratic premise: the idea was that international lawyers were in a better position to hold former foreign leaders or military officials to account precisely because they had no local connections and were above the conflict in question. It was, apparently, their very aloofness and unaccountability that made them good judges of what should happen in other states’ affairs and who should be punished for what. Here, the international community’s apparently selfless humanitarianism was contrasted with the petty local violence of Bosnian Serbs or Rwandan Hutus; the international was good and pure and honest – the local was self-interested, irrational and untrustworthy.

Yet now, Saddam’s trial is the very reverse of these earlier war crimes tribunals: the emphasis is entirely on the local, on allowing, in the words of President Bush, Iraqis ‘to decide Saddam’s fate’ (4). This shift from international trials of Serbs and Hutus in the Nineties to a local trial of Ba’athists today reveals the depth of America’s crisis of authority on the international stage. The Iraq war exposed the fiction of an international community: there was not unanimous support for the invasion on the UN security council; leading UN officials, including secretary-general Kofi Annan, openly criticised aspects of the war and occupation; America had very public falling-outs with France and Germany over the war.

In such circumstances, how could an international trial of Saddam be seriously organised? Would the UN be willing to set up a tribunal as it did for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda? And would world leaders recognise the process, or use it to have further pops at the Bush administration and Blair? The coalition has made Saddam’s trial local because they feel their international moral authority ebbing away.

(In the process, they have angered some of those international lawyers who have made a very good living from trying foreigners in undemocratic and aloof tribunals. So in the current Spectator, Geoffrey Robertson, vice president of the UN’s war crimes court for Sierra Leone, says Saddam’s trial should be ‘transferred to The Hague’ because the local Iraqi system ‘cannot produce a proper trial’. The current proceedings are likely, he says, to become ‘an example of that wild justice – revenge’ (5). In short, the locals can’t be trusted; best get a decent fellow like Robertson to pass judgement on Saddam. Robertson and others cling to their view of international humanitarianism even as recent events show it to be a sham.)

If the localisation, if you like, of Saddam’s trial is a consequence of a crisis of authority on the international stage, then the collapse of the trial into a ‘comedy show’ highlights the crisis of authority in Iraq itself. America and Britain lack the moral authority to try Saddam internationally, and they and their allies in Iraq also lack the kind of local legitimacy that might have made a local trial an at least half-serious affair.

In postwar Iraq, there is no properly authoritative or democratic system that can organise a serious case even against a tinpot tyrant turned mad old man like Saddam. Consider the judges in the court. They are Iraqis who were given crash courses in Western standards of law by legal experts in London and held courtroom rehearsals in Italy and the Netherlands, before being flown back to Iraq to oversee what some were referring to as ‘the trial of the century’ (5). They had little earlier experience of legal matters because, of course, under Saddam due process did not really exist. There are 30 judges, but only one judge’s name has been revealed for security reasons, as earlier this year one of them was assassinated. It is a measure of the court’s lack of local authority that the judges have to remain anonymous and worry about being knocked off by insurgents.

It is this fundamental lack of legitimacy that allows Saddam and his lawyers to shout and rant. With the Americans and British fleeing from the trial and wanting to have as little to do with it as possible, and the newly installed judges not really representing any coherent Iraqi government or state, the way is open for Saddam simply to mock the proceedings and tell the judges to get lost. Likewise, the court’s nakedly cynical focus on only certain crimes committed by Saddam – such as the massacre of 143 people in the town of al-Dujayl – leaves it open to the challenge: ‘What about other crimes, including those that were given the nod by America?’ Saddam may well raise this issue. In the absence of real authority in the courtroom, he and his cronies can poke fun or point the finger back at the judges and their supporters in the coalition.

Ironically, despite the fact that the trial has become a ‘comedy show’, the coalition now seems seriously to hope that these proceedings will transform Iraq. Many believe the trial will have a therapeutic effect on the Iraqi people, wake them from their Saddam-era stupour, and point them in the right direction to democracy and liberty. One newspaper editorial has claimed that the trial is ‘a necessary stage in the purging of Iraq’s demons. Until the fate of Iraq’s former dictator is resolved, it is hard to see how the country will be able to leave its past behind’. Others claim there can be no reconciliation or political development ‘without such a trial’ (6).

This gets things entirely the wrong way round: instead of a situation where a legitimate Iraqi state is trying Saddam, the coalition hopes that the trial of Saddam will somehow magic up a legitimate Iraqi state. Coalition officials seem to think that these proceedings will provide the impetus to installing democracy and decency in Iraq, which explains why they funded these proceedings, trained the lawyers and insisted that Saddam be tried locally. From this view, the problem in Iraq is the people and their attitudes: they are, apparently, still in thrall to their former dictator and need to ‘see and hear’ him on trial in order to snap out of it. The coalition’s responsibility for making a mess of postwar Iraq is shifted on to Iraqis for not yet getting over the past. The trial of Saddam is burdened, not only with having to pass judgement on a former dictator, but also with liberating Iraq and leading it to a bright future. Whatever it decides to do with Saddam, it will not be able to remake Iraq.

If the current trial shows anything it is that the past isn’t the problem; it’s the present, and the replacement of a dictatorship with a hollow government and hollow courts that seem neither to be the property of coalition officials nor of the Iraqi people.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) First witnesses in rowdy day at trial in Iraq , New York Times, 6 December 2005

(2) See Saddam’s trial: whose demons are they anyway?, by David Chandler

(3) The Rise and Rise of Human Rights, Kirsten Sellars, Sutton Publishing, 2002

(4) Iraqis to decide Saddam’s fate: Bush,, 16 December 2003

(5) The trial of the century , CBS News, 16 December 2003

(6) ‘Saddam Hussein is not the only one on trial’, Independent, 19 October 2005

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Topics Politics


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