Hitchens: “Don’t Hang Saddam”

by Peggy McGuinness

Christopher Hitchens captures here exactly why the death penalty is a mistake in the case of Saddam Hussein. I have been surprised throughout the process at the IST how many American human rights lawyers have worked for and with the tribunal, knowing that death by hanging was a likely outcome. Surely, if there is one “international norm” that relates to post-regime/post-conflict justice it is that the death penalty should be off the table. And it is just bad policy. Perhaps one of the few things the CPA did right during its time running Iraq was abolishing the death penalty.

The attempts to declare the verdict and sentence a victory for international justice (as Michael Newton does here over at the WaPo) are admirable, but ultimately unconvincing. (See Kevin’s discussion below.) Enduring peace, justice, and reconciliation are difficult to achieve even after a war. Injecting the execution of a former dictator into an ongoing civil war — before the full truth of his heinous deeds and the grievances of the citizenry have been properly aired — may prove devastatingly counter productive.


2 Responses

  1. Peggy,

    I think there is something missing in this debate. If Saddam Hussein does not receive the death penalty, there is a risk that a subsequent Iraqi government may decide, or be pressured to decide, to grant him amnesty. According to Michael Scharf over at Grotian Moment, this was a principal reason why the Iraqis wanted to pursue the death penalty against Hussein. “They were worried that persons convicted of the most heinous crimes known to humankind (genocide, crimes against humanity, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions) might later be granted amnesty by a subsequent Iraqi regime. Citing the Napoleonic precedent, the Iraqis were extremely concerned that without the death penalty, convicted leaders could one day return to power, as Hussein himself had done after being released from prison in 1968.” That is a critically important reason to consider the appropriateness of the death penalty in this context. I think that we should focus on this question from the perspective of what the Iraqi people want, not what the international community wants.

    Roger Alford

  2. Roger–

    I think the comments over at Grotian Moment adequately capture the flaws in Michael Scharf’s argument here, particularly the rather extreme assumption that Saddam will regain power if he is not killed. (If the American advisors were that pessimistic about the future political stability and the prospects for the rule of law in Iraq, it suggests much deeper problems with the entire IST project.)

    I would add, however, if the purpose of the IST was to represent the desires of the “Iraqi people” — and not just the lawyers and judges who worked closely with the American and British consultants to the process — it might have looked very different. It might not have even been a legal process at all. Even if we could figure out a way of ascertaining the desires of all the people of Iraq, I am not sure special prosecutions for crimes against humanity should be dependent on majoritarian attitudes. Would international human rights lawyers permit, for example, summary presentation of evidence and immediate execution on the grounds that it reflected the popular sentiment in a particular state? That seems to me the opposite of international justice.

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