EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the February 13, 2006, issue of National Review.
The trial of Saddam Hussein is without precedent in the Arab world. Rulers there remain in power until their natural death or their murder by a successor. In Iraq in living memory, the king and his family and his prime minister were trampled until their corpses were unrecognizable. Two of the nationalists who then seized power were themselves violently overthrown. Fear that this would be his own fate drove Saddam to many of his crimes. Baghdad is without a settled government for the time being, and mayhem on the street is not yet checked. But however fraught the context, Iraqis — and people throughout the Middle East — are taking note on their TV screens of each and every stage in the establishment of the rule of law. In that sense, Saddam’s is indeed a show trial.
From the moment of his capture in December 2003, he was obviously going to provide a field day for the swarm of legalists and busybodies who have no responsibility but plenty of objections and fantasies about the nature of the world. Sure enough, the likes of Amnesty International, Ramsey Clark, and every other self-important leftist are agog to accuse the United States of imposing victor’s justice. But there was never any question of trying Saddam outside Iraq. Iraqis had the will and the capabilities to hold the trial, and they set up a tribunal for this purpose.
As was only to be expected, Baathist brutality immediately joined hands with legalism in the attempt to compromise proceedings against Saddam. One of the five judges — along with several members of the tribunal staff — was murdered. Unseen hands have also shot dead two of the defense lawyers, and a third fled the country. Lawyers for Saddam are meanwhile practicing the usual tricks of the trade. The tribunal, they claim, has no legitimacy; they have not had enough time to prepare; and they will summon American presidents to show “U.S. complicity” with Saddam’s crimes. They’ll summon British prime ministers, too!
Other landmark cases are open to comparable legalistic objections. At Nuremberg, one of the Allied judges was a Soviet apparatchik involved in Stalinist crime at least the equivalent of Nazi crime. When the octogenarian Marshal Pétain was tried for treason as a collaborator with Hitler, his lawyers wanted the trial to be declared invalid on account of his age and poor memory. The Israelis infringed international law in kidnapping Adolf Eichmann in order to bring him to court. Milosevic sounds like Saddam, saying that his own court — the international tribunal at The Hague — has no legitimacy to try him. The special features of such cases prove only how elusive natural justice is. . . .
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