Debate over the Iraq war is not likely to quiet after the capture of Saddam Hussein. We doubt the former dictator will be too helpful in enlightening us about his programs for weapons of mass destruction or his infiltration of al-Qaeda (although he might have a lot to say about his former helpers in the West, including the United States.). As President Bush more or less said in his Dec. 15 press conference, the man is such a liar that he wouldn't believe him even if he told the truth. But one aspect of Saddam's capture, alive, could carry immense benefits for the Iraqis themselves and for any minorities threatened with genocide by an inhuman tyranny.
Since Saddam is in custody, whether as a perp or a POW, he almost certainly will be brought to a public trial. If handled well, this forum would not only help Iraqis cope with a 35-year history of death and terror, it would at least marginally increase protections for potential future victims of such deranged and bloodthirsty reigns. And as we know only too well, these victims are very often the Native populations in countries all over the world, from Guatemala to Indonesia. These protections might even help the victims of liberal, human-rights-endorsing democracies, from Australia to the United States.
Although Saddam terrorized and murdered indiscriminately, even famously forcing a mob of relatives to kill his two sons-in-law, two indigenous groups suffered especially severely, the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs. We've heard it said frequently and accurately that Saddam used poison gas against his own people. But this well-documented incident involved the Kurdish village of Halabja. Historically, Saddam considered this population, mountain-dwelling non-Arab warriors whose origins stretch into antiquity, to be "his people" about as much as 19th century Washington considered Plains tribes to be "their people." Likewise, he tried to destroy the entire ecology of the indigenous tribes in Iraq's southern delta, draining the marshes that gave them refuge.
These crimes should rank high in any indictment of Hussein. From the early talk about a trial, including the Iraq Governing Council's vote even before the capture to establish war tribunals, it appears that these forums are intended not only to punish the guilty but to establish a historical record. The extent to which they succeed will depend not only on the evidence they produce of individual tortures and executions, but in the research they compile on the government decisions and bureaucratic processes that produced the group murders. The files of the Nuremburg trials of Nazi leaders after World War II provides one model, and there are others, such as the Israeli trial of Adolph Eichman and the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
If the historical fact-finding role of the trial remains paramount, it's a secondary issue just how the tribunal is organized. The argument going on now is a bit like the jurisdictional squabble over a captured serial killer. We believe the trial should be primarily an Iraqi affair. Some former State Department figures are proclaiming on TV talk shows that the Iraqi legal system is too battered by years of abuse to handle such a trial. This argument is unusually fatuous, even for that quarter. We're not talking about a "Law and Order" episode with anguished discussions of due process. This tribunal would be a singular history-making event, and the Iraqi people have the sovereign right to conduct it themselves. Some of the condescending talk about Iraqi legal capacity reminds us of the occasional sneers we hear about tribal courts in the U.S., and we are inclined to reject the advice of the well-intended human rights groups on that grounds alone. Our impression is that a wealth of talent is beginning to re-emerge in Iraq, and a home-based tribunal will help it take root.
But this isn't to deny that other countries have an interest in prosecuting Saddam. Kuwait never received satisfaction for what it suffered during his invasion and occupation; in fact it is still trying to locate hundreds of POWs, or their remains. Iran has an even heavier bill to bring. It was clearly the victim of Saddam's unprovoked aggression, a miscalculated invasion of its Arab-populated, oil-rich southern province in 1980 that started eight years of the bloodiest carnage since World War II. Even the U.S. has stated its intent to bring war crimes trials of Iraqi officers it believes abused or killed American prisoners, in this year's war or Desert Storm. These claims should be accommodated, either through the Iraqi framework or some parallel scheme.
Iran's complaints above all deserve respectful hearing. Although the U.S. tends to ignore them (possibly because Iran includes Americans like Donald Rumsfeld in its charges), a trial on these counts would bring to the bar the country that reintroduced chemical warfare on a massive scale. The battlefield use of chemical and possibly biological weapons is a crime even Hitler didn't attempt, but it became a standard feature of Iraqi tactics against the Iranian counter-offensive. A trial on this issue could become a worthy, if possibly futile, attempt to reassert an international ban on these weapons.
More generally, but of even more interest to Native peoples, a trial of Saddam, like the forum on Rwanda genocide and the Hague war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic for Serbian ethnic cleansing, would add to a body of international precedent calling for punishment of any government tempted to oppress or destroy its Native populations. Examples are close at hand. In a recent Amnesty International report, they range from the headwaters of the Amazon to the valleys of Nevada. Some of the best legal minds in Indian country now see international law as the ultimate appeal from a legal system with an inherent bias against the human and property rights of Native peoples.
For this reason alone, the trial of Saddam would be worth watching, but it is bound to be in all its aspects of highest historical interest and curative value.