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The Coalition has been ‘Saddamned’ by this trial, too

America and Britain's claims to moral authority look set to be buried alongside Saddam Hussein.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Saddam Hussein may be, in the words of the Daily Mirror, ‘Saddamned to hell’: he’s been found guilty of murder, torture and forced deportation, and sentenced to death by hanging (1). But he wasn’t the only one on trial in that Baghdad courtroom. The Coalition of the Willing has also been indicted. Saddam and his cohorts were exposed during the proceedings as gibbering old despots, and few people will shed any tears when their necks snap on the gallows. But the Coalition was exposed as isolated, morally bankrupt and incapable even of organising a showtrial of a tinpot tyrant in the Middle East. The trial had the intended consequence of sticking Saddam six feet under – and the unintended consequence of burying the Coalition’s claims to moral authority alongside him.

Despite the protestations about the death sentence from EU officials and the self-appointed guardians of international morality in Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, it is of course common for new regimes to execute the leaders or figureheads of the old regime they have replaced. From the French revolutionaries’ beheading of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette (recently remade into a sympathetic figure by Hollywood) to the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu in Romania in 1989, history is peppered with the executions of former rulers. The aim of these killings is to demonstrate the power and resolve of the new regime. What is different about the trial and death sentence against Saddam, however, is that it is a substitute for such power and resolve – not so much a demonstration of new authority over old, but a desperate attempt to magic up some new authority by carrying out an execution as a kind of media stunt.

From the outset, it was clear that the Coalition and its allies in Iraq viewed the trial of Saddam as more than a public event that would bolster their claims to legitimacy and authority – rather, they hoped the trial would actually grant them the legitimacy and authority they were sorely lacking. Instead of a situation where a legitimate Iraqi state was trying Saddam, the Coalition hoped that the trial of Saddam would somehow conjure up a legitimate Iraqi state. American officials claimed there could be no reconciliation or political development in Iraq ‘without such a trial’; one newspaper editorial said the trial was ‘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 argued that without this trial there could be ‘no political emergence from Saddam’s malign shadow and no justice for the victims in Iraq and in Iran’ (2).

Here, the West’s politics of therapy was projected on to Iraq, with the trial described as a kind of primal and cathartic experience that might wake Iraqis from their fearful, Saddam-era stupor and encourage them to make a new state, as a way of alleviating Iraq’s pain and helping it to ‘move on’ (3). Now, Coalition leaders openly talk about the death sentence against Saddam as a step towards creating a new Iraqi society. President George W Bush said the sentence was a ‘milestone in the Iraqi people’s efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law’. White House spokesman Tony Snow said the sentence will allow ‘Iraqis to stand up on their own…. You can’t have civil society without the rule of law.’ (4) The trial of Saddam was burdened not only with having to depose an old dictator, but also with ushering in a new era of peace and democracy. But court cases can’t do that, however much Bush, Tony Blair and their local allies might wish they could.

In effect, the execution of Saddam won’t be that much different to the toppling of his statue in central Baghdad by American forces in 2003: both are media stunts intended to ‘send a message’ about the Coalition’s sense of purpose and to show the people of Iraq that they are apparently free. The Coalition has a strangely superstitious attitude to Saddam, seeming to believe that he emits an evil force that lurks over postwar Iraq, and which must be extinguished if Iraq is ever truly to be free. The trial and execution of Saddam are a weird mix of the contemporary politics of therapy and old-fashioned voodooism – and the obsession with despatching the former tyrant captures the hole at the heart of postwar Iraq, the absence of vision or direction in that collapsing state.

The trial of Saddam has managed to send one clear message: that the Coalition lacks any serious international or moral authority. A trial set up to justify, in retrospect, the invasion of Iraq and to show that Bush and Blair were right all along, has ended up exposing the internal incoherence of America and Britain and their isolation on the world stage. The trial has demonstrated that the Coalition has neither the international legitimacy nor the local connections in Iraq to hold even a much-ridiculed and despised figure like Saddam to account in any meaningful way.

First, the Coalition was strikingly incapable of turning the trial into an international spectacle, a worldwide advert bigging up its moral and political credentials. Instead it had to plumb for a local trial by local judges. That stood in stark contrast to earlier war crimes trials in the post-Cold War period. In the Nineties, setting up tribunals to try alleged war criminals from various parts of the Third World became an important part of the West’s attempt to rehabilitate its 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 the civil conflict in Sierra Leone, overseen by various Western lawyers and UN bigwigs. These courts, for all their talk of international justice, were highly political endeavours: they were attempts to distinguish between the West and the rest, between the judgers and the judged. As Kirsten Sellars argues in The Rise and Rise of Human Rights, the tribunals were effectively ‘political weapons’ wielded as part of a broader effort to imbue Western governments with a sense of moral purpose by contrasting them favourably with the ‘barbarians’ of Eastern Europe or Africa (5).

Thus, these earlier tribunals were explicitly international. The alleged war criminals were taken out of their own territory and tried on an ‘international stage’ before the eyes of the apparently more enlightened West. Slobodan Milosevic and various other former leaders and fighters in the Yugoslav wars were taken to The Hague in the Netherlands, while Rwanda’s Hutu leaders were tried by a UN-authorised court in Tanzania.

Saddam’s trial was the exact reverse of these earlier tribunals. The emphasis was entirely on the local, on allowing, in the words of President Bush, ‘Iraqis to decide Saddam’s fate’ (6). This shift from international trials of Serbs and Hutus in the Nineties to a local trial of Baathists today reveals the depth of America’s crisis of authority on the international stage. Indeed, the Iraq war exposed the fiction of an international community: there was no unanimous support for the invasion on the UN Security Council; leading UN officials, including secretary-general Kofi Annan, openly criticised the conduct of the war and occupation; and America had very public clashes with France and Germany over the war.

In such circumstances, how could an international trial of Saddam be seriously organised? It is highly unlikely that the UN would have been willing to set up a tribunal as it did for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and some world leaders may well have refused to recognise the process. An international trial of Saddam would most likely have brought even more unwelcome criticism and strife America and Britain’s way. The Coalition made Saddam’s trial local because it felt its international stature and influence ebbing away.

If the localisation of Saddam’s trial was a consequence of a crisis on an international level, then the frequent collapse of the trial into farce – or a ‘comedy show’, in the words of one new Iraqi official – highlighted the crisis of authority in Iraq itself. America and Britain lacked the legitimacy to try Saddam internationally; they and their allies in Iraq also lacked the kind of local legitimacy that might have made a local trial an at least half-serious affair.

Despite America and Britain’s claims to be letting ‘Iraqis decide’ what to do with Saddam, in postwar Iraq there was no properly authoritative or democratic system that could organise a case even against a tinpot-dictator-turned-mad-old-man like Saddam. The Iraqi judges in the court 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’. The trial took place pretty much in a bunker in the heavily fortified green zone in Baghdad. There were around 30 judges during the trial, but only a handful of them had their names made public for security reasons; over the course of the trial three defence lawyers and one witness were kidnapped and executed. It is a measure of the court’s isolation and fear of the population that it met behind bulletproof exteriors and under armed guard and that the judges had to remain anonymous for fear of being knocked off by insurgents. The Iraqi authorities imposed a 24-hour curfew in Baghdad and other cities following the announcement of the verdict on Saddam, showing that even as they herald the birth of a new Iraq they remain terrified by this new Iraq.

It isn’t surprising that Saddam and his cohorts frequently ridiculed the court and its staff. Saddam was repeatedly ejected from the courtroom for his political rants; his half-brother and co-defendant, Barzan Ibrahim, even turned up to court in his underpants and sat with his back to the judges. It was the farcical nature of the court that allowed Saddam and Co to behave in such a farcical manner. The Coalition affected that the trial of Saddam was an entirely Iraqi and independent affair, when in fact they financed and organised the training of the judges and played a key role in determining the agenda. The end result was the worst of both worlds for the Coalition: a trial that was not international, thus robbing America and Britain of the opportunity to partake in a bit of global posturing, and which was also a pretty see-through stooge court representing Coalition interests, which meant that very few people took it seriously.

The limited nature of the court was captured in its focus on the Baathists’ massacre of 148 people in Dujail in 1982 following a failed assassination attempt. The current Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, says the death sentence against Saddam is a verdict against a ‘whole dark era’. But it isn’t. The Coalition and its allies decided against raising Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds in 1988 or his role in the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988, because they were concerned that awkward questions would be raised about the West’s support for Saddam while he carried out these barbarous acts. Such is the Coalition’s isolation today that it feels it cannot sit in judgement on Saddam’s ‘dark era’, so instead it focused on one conveniently horrific event from the past 30 years (7).

The trial of Saddam has ended up indicting the Coalition as much as Saddam. It has exposed a profound contradiction in the Coalition’s venture in Iraq – which is that the Coalition has extraordinary power, but little legitimacy behind it. It can invade a state, topple its regime within 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 grassroots links in Iraq to have made that trial a serious or meaningful endeavour. In a few months’ time, an old man with a beard who used to rule Iraq will be dead, and not many people will mourn his passing. But Iraq will not be transformed, and the Coalition will still lack direction or purpose.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) ‘Saddamned to hell’, Daily Mirror, 6 November 2006

(2) Saddam on the stand, The Times (London), 19 October 2005

(3) Saddam on the stand, The Times (London), 19 October 2005

(4) US denies role in timing of Saddam’s verdict, Hindustan Times, 5 November 2006

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

(6) Saddam on the stand, The Times (London), 19 October 2005

(7) A verdict on a whole dark era, EuroNews, 6 November 2006

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Topics Politics

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