January 11, 2004 | Op-ed

The Twin Fates of Saddam and U.N. Tribunals

Authored by Austen Givens

Saddam Hussein's arrest has created a critical question: Where will he be tried?

The answer will be incredibly important for both international law and the future of international institutions like the U.N.

The tribunal trying former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at the Hague, for example, continues today.

In spite of the huge amount of evidence and testimony against Milosevic, his trial slumps along after more than two years. The focus of his trial, unfortunately, now seems more political than judicial.

Milosevic decided at the beginning of his trial to defend himself instead of hiring a lawyer. This decision, which is a right afforded him by the Tribunal, allowed Milosevic to accuse assorted members of his own government, soldiers from NATO member-states, and officials of other governments to have caused to be responsible for the killings in Yugoslavia.[1] Milosevic also insisted that the very nature of the Tribunal was illegitimate as it wasn't formed by the U.N. General Assembly.[2]

It's easy, given this ridiculous behavior, to explain the relative slowness of the trial.

The fact that an ex-dictator (and a murderer) can make these sorts of accusations in the middle of an international tribunal is a tragedy. It's disgusting. It's something that no participating government should be proud of.

Milosevic's actions in the midst of his trial don't constitute justice. They constitute a kangaroo court that is to say an almost fake trial, one seriously lacking sense of purpose.

His actions on trial also make us wonder about his mental state if he really understands what he's done, if he understands the value of a life, if he understands one can't do the kinds of things he did in this world, etc. It's clear that Milosevic is a megalomaniac a truly cold and calculating murderer, cut from the same cloth as the Soviet Union under Stalin, Romania under Ceausescu, Germany under Hitler, and yes Iraq under Hussein. The website www.slobodan-milosevic.org openly and vehemently opposes the legitimacy of Milosevic's trial at the Hague, and provides a mailing address for Milosevic in his detention cell. Milosevic's biography on the site states:

Today President Milosevic is heroically defending not only himself, but also the honor of the entire Serbian nation against the fraudulent and baseless accusations leveled against Serbia by NATO and its illegal tribunal at the Hague.[3]

Such statements, contrasted with the testimony in Milosevic's trial, make it clear that Milosevic is highly adept at rationalizing his murderous ways.

The reality, it seems, is that Milosevic, like Hussein, either will never understand or doesn't want to understand the implications of his actions.

Milosevic doesn't want to believe or accept that it was he who was responsible for the deaths of thousands. Milosevic doesn't want to believe or accept that it was he who was responsible for the destruction of a nation and mass murder.

The rhetoric from German leader Schroeder and French Prime Minister Chirac regarding What IS a legitimate tribunal? regarding Hussein will begin soon, I'm sure of it. Already we've heard calls for Saddam to be put on trial at the Hague from some in the international community.

It's almost a sure thing that a legitimate tribunal, in their eyes, will never be found in Iraq. The tribunal, they'll say, must be in the Hague. Period.

Make no mistake this is not to diminish the importance of other war crime tribunals that have taken place Eichmann's trial at Nuremberg after World War II in particular was very meaningful but given the similarities between Milosevic and Hussein's demeanor and personal histories, I'm convinced that a trial in Baghdad, instead of the Hague, would be all the more valuable for the Iraqi people.

The process of democratization is long and difficult. As was seen after the fall of the Soviet Union and in various Latin American nations like Argentina and Colombia, a nation's ability to have a judicial system free from corruption that is both vertically and horizontally linked with other elements of government to ensure its legitimacy and accountability is vitally important.

A true democracy simply can't survive without this critical element.

Iraq under Saddam had a fake judicial system. Justice didn't exist as we know it. Justice was arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and murder based on whims and show-trials.[4]

A tribunal held in Baghdad would have many positive implications:

1. It would bring more legitimacy to the new Iraqi judicial system, particularly in the eyes of the international community. If international media outlets can show that the Iraqis are able to take care of themselves fairly in the context of a functioning and accountable judicial system, more world governments will be willing to contribute to the success of a new and independent Iraq.

2. It would bring more legitimacy to alliances formed outside the U.N. such as the U.S.-led Coalition of the Willing to eliminate the scourge of international terrorism.

3. It would be a victory for the Iraqi people. After so many years of desperation and horror, they will be able to begin to have a sense of justice in their lives. They will be able to begin to contend in a peaceful way with the pain of the past with protests, memorials, books and articles rather than riots and shooting. They will be able to continue with new energy in the reconstruction of their nation.

4. A trial in Baghdad would be much more personal for the Iraqi people. It would be a product of their energy, their ability to think and reason, their thirst for justice, and their courage in confronting this murderer. This trial MUST be personal for Iraqis for their well-being, and for their future. They must now learn that it will be them not a dictator that will from here on out determine their future.

5. There will be no place for messing around, for judicial nitpicking and wild accusations, as in Milosevic's trial. Iraqis are fed up with Saddam's lies and senseless counter-accusations. The trial would be quick, fair, and set an invaluable precedent of serving justice to tyrants in Iraqi history.

The world will soon see where Saddam's trial will take place. Regardless of Saddam's fate – be it death or rotting in jail for the rest of his life – the implications will be critical in determining the fate of international law, the U.N., alliances such as the Coalition of the Willing, and dictators everywhere.

Austen Givens is a fourth-year Foreign Affairs major at the University of Virginia and an Undergraduate Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a non-profit non-partisan anti-terrorism research institute based in Washington, D.C.