Saddam trial: whose ‘demons’ are they anyway?

The coalition is focusing on Saddam's crimes of 23 years ago in order to disclaim responsibility for present failures.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

The opening of the trial of Saddam Hussein, starting with the charge of killing 143 Shias from the village of Dujail in 1982, is held by many commentators to be a fundamental turning point for Iraq and its people. Apparently, this marks the birth of a new post-Saddam Iraq, with the Iraqi government putting Saddam on trial for crimes largely committed against the Iraqi people. The focus is very much on Iraq, so much so that some commentators are complaining that the charges should be beefed up to reflect Saddam’s international crimes and that international judges should have a larger role.

The trial is billed as a story of the Iraqi people confronting their own past. ‘Iraq, based on the rule of law, will be trying the old Iraq of cruelty and corruption’, said one report (1). The war for ‘regime change’, the fuss about ‘weapons of mass destruction’, and the disintegration of the country under US and British administration are firmly relegated to the background.

The post-Saddam years are accorded little importance. It now appears that the main problem for the country is coming to terms with Saddam’s legacy. The Times (London) reported that Saddam’s Baathist supporters were planning to launch a wave of guerrilla attacks on US and Iraqi forces to mark the opening of the trial, suggesting that Saddam still has an influence on Iraqi politics and a role in resistance to the US-backed regime (2). For the Independent, Saddam is so influential that ‘the nation still fears his power’; judges are apparently afraid to prosecute him, witnesses too scared to testify (3). The relevance of Saddam to today’s Iraq is exaggerated, and as a result the focus is shifted away from the consequences of the war and the international occupation.

An Independent editorial claims that ‘this 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’ (4). The Guardian concurs that ‘it is important for ordinary Iraqis and the wider Arab world to see and hear him and his henchmen being tried’ (5). The Times argues that ‘Without such a trial, there can be no reconciliation, no political emergence from Saddam’s malign shadow and no justice for the victims in Iraq and in Iran’ (6).

It makes you wonder what would have happened if the Americans had been able to organise Saddam’s assassination prior to the war, or if they had managed to kill him in the many targeted attempts at the beginning of the war. Would Iraq be forever unable to emerge from his malign shadow?

The trial has increasingly assumed the central task previously claimed by the US-led occupation: the responsibility for leading Iraq’s transition from Arab dictatorship to Western democracy. Commentators insist on the importance of a fair trial, on ‘justice being seen to be done’, not so much for Saddam’s benefit as for the political and educational benefit of the Iraqi people.

Implicit in this discussion is the idea that Iraqi people cannot move on without a thorough accounting for the past; that without this process they are not ready for the freedom their Western liberators have offered them. The problems of Iraq are seen as in part the result of a resistance or inability of Iraqis to confront their past and whole-heartedly welcome their Western-inspired future. Here responsibility for the chronic violence and instability of the Iraqi present is shifted away from the intervening powers and placed with the psychological immaturity of the Iraqi people.

Many argue that this is the first truly independent act of the provisional Iraqi government. The Times (London) says that ‘attempting to internationalise the proceedings would seem an unwelcome foreign intervention to many Iraqis’ (7). Other commentators also stress the importance of ‘Iraqi ownership’. In this respect the trial is seen as an important part of the process, which started in June 2004, of ‘handing back’ Iraqi sovereignty. The fact that international human rights groups have criticised the trial for not being internationally managed, and thereby open to Iraqi political manipulation, adds to the sense that the Iraqi government is now independent of the USA (8).

In fact, the independence of the Iraqi government is entirely fictional. The relationship of dependency is highlighted by the trial itself, which has been scripted and stage-managed by the USA and Britain – the opening speeches and format being laid down by the US and the British team training the Iraqi judges (9). Britain has, in fact, spent nearly £2million on the trial in legal advice and training for the Iraqi judges (10). This sum pales into insignificance in comparison with the US Congress provision of $128million (£73million) for the tribunal’s investigation and prosecution of former regime officials, and America’s direct influence through the US-established Regime Crimes Liaison Office that played a leading role in the interrogation of high-value detainees (11).

Saddam’s fate is today of little relevance to the people of Iraq and, if anything, the proceedings, which will detail the regime’s murder and torture of Shias 23 years ago, are likely only to reinforce the country’s religious and regional political divide. The Saddam trial has less to do with the Iraqi people overcoming their Saddam past than with the US and Britain distancing themselves from Iraq’s post-Saddam present.

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His latest book is Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is speaking at the session on nation-building at the at the Battle of Ideas in London on 29-30 October 2005.

(1) ‘Don’t hurry over Saddam. The whole Arab world needs to watch this trial’, Amir Taheri, The Times, 19 October 2005

(2) ‘Diehards urged to salute the leader as he faces justice’, James Hider, The Times, 19 October 2005

(3) ‘As Saddam faces his judges, the nation he ruled for 35 years still fears his power’, Patrick Cockburn, Independent, 19 October 2005

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

(5) ‘Justice in Baghdad’, Guardian, 19 October 2005

(6) ‘Saddam on the Stand’, The Times, 19 October 2005

(7) ‘Saddam on the Stand’, The Times, 19 October 2005

(8) See, for example, The Former Iraqi Government On Trial, Human Rights Watch, 16 October 2005

(9) BBC Newsnight, 19 October 2005

(10) Saddam trial: A weak case for war, by David Chandler

(11) ‘A Chance for justice, but will it be seized?’, Simon Tisdall, Guardian, 19 October 2005

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Topics Politics


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