Now that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein has been captured, the world's attention has turned to his trial. Should Saddam be tried by Iraqis in Iraq, or should he face an international tribunal?
The forthcoming conference on democracy, human rights and the role of the International Criminal Court in Yemen on Jan. 10 to 12 will provide a forum to debate these questions.
It is, of course, certain that Saddam will not escape trial for the extra-judicial, extra-legal and summary executions, torture and systematic persecution of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis that marked his decades of murderous misrule. However, the aim of his trial should be not only to bring to justice the dictator and his accomplices, but also to foster national reconciliation through the affirmation by Iraqis of universal principles such as non-discrimination, fairness and transparency.
For years, Iraq has only known the brutal laws of force and intimidation. If judging Saddam and his regime is to become a cornerstone in the building of a free, democratic and reconciled Iraq, then the US, as the leader of the coalition that ousted him, should do everything in its power to pursue this opportunity and set a very high standard of justice.
US President George W. Bush has stated that he would "work with Iraqis to develop a way to try [Saddam] that will withstand international scrutiny." The best way to address that scrutiny and avoid accusations of "victor's justice" is to involve other international players in the exercise.
To address the systematic violations of the laws of war and the crimes against humanity committed in the former Yugoslavia, in the Great Lakes Region of Africa or in Sierra Leone and Cambodia, the international community, with the involvement of the UN, set up international and internationalized courts. These institutions have finally established the principle that major violations of human rights and dignity are of universal concern and that the international community should actively participate in the quest for justice and reparation for victims.
While no one doubts the willingness of Iraqi judges to try their former "head of state" in a national court, the novelty of such an effort and its political implications suggest some type of international participation for the sake of competence and, most of all, impartiality.
Over the last 10 years, the international community has established special or ad hoc tribunals, with international participation in those situations where local institutions could not ensure due process of law or fair trials. Iraq presents another such situation. Thirty years of brutal dictatorship have destroyed the very concept of justice in Iraq. For justice must mean more than the cries of "death to Saddam" that now echo in some quarters around the world.
It is important that the US take the lead in this crucial aspect of state-building. It should reach out to the UN in an exercise similar to those that, without providing for capital punishment, have brought to justice Slobodan Milosevic and the leaders responsible for the Rwandan genocide -- and that tomorrow might bring to the dock Liberia's Charles Taylor and dozens of Khmer Rouge leaders.
An added benefit of internationalization would perhaps be to make clear to the current US administration that withholding endorsement of the International Criminal Court is fundamentally against its own interests. It could also facilitate the process of internationalizing the burden of rebuilding Iraq, which cannot be shouldered entirely by the US and its allies.
The preconditions for the enjoyment of civil and political rights cannot be built overnight. Before elections can be freely and fairly held, huge efforts must be made to establish a truly open society in which all individuals and groups can express their political opinions. Establishing a system of justice that protects these rights is indispensable; otherwise, there will never be a durable and lasting peace in Iraq.
An internationalized court in Iraq for the prosecution of crimes against humanity would contribute to the development of a national justice system that will actually deliver justice for all Iraqis, and will thus assist the already encouraging efforts of the Iraqi Governing Council towards democracy.
Emma Bonino, a former EU Commissioner, is a Transnational Radical Member of the European Parliament. Copyright: Project Syndicate
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