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Western Press Review: Debating The Merits Of Iraqi, International Tribunals

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 16 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Debate continues to rage in the press over how best to bring Saddam Hussein to trial for the crimes of his regime. Many commentators emphasize that any trial must be fully credible and transparent, clearly documenting his crimes for posterity and bringing Iraq a sense of closure. But disagreement is rife over whether justice is best served by a national Iraqi tribunal, an international court, or a "mixed" judiciary comprising both Iraqi and international elements. A review of press commentary today finds a wide range of arguments on all the alternatives.


The British daily "The Guardian" calls Saddam Hussein's list of crimes "truly mind-boggling, ranging from mass murder at home to cross-border invasion, spanning over 30 years. Any future trial, if fully and properly conducted, will raise enormous, far-ranging issues." The paper advises the creation of a UN-approved criminal tribunal for Iraq, saying the best model may be a so-called "mixed" tribunal of both Iraqi national and international jurists presiding over a public trial, as was done in the special court for Sierra Leone. "This is not just about making Saddam pay," the paper says. "It is about delivering justice to a whole nation and, indeed, a whole region, in a spirit not of vengeance, but of impeccable, exemplary legality and legitimacy. This must be seen to be done right. The last thing Iraq needs is another corpse -- or a martyr."


An editorial in "The Boston Globe" says if Saddam Hussein can be tried "in a suitable court for crimes against humanity and genocide, his capture may presage not only the end of Iraq's long nightmare but also the coming of a new era built upon respect for human rights and the rule of law."

The arrest of their former leader may help convince Iraqis that neither Hussein nor his Ba'ath Party will ever return to power -- or, as the paper puts it, "that the torture cells and raping vans of Saddam's security apparatus will vanish with the tyrant's demise." However, the violence perpetrated in Iraq by remnants of his security services and foreign jihadis will not end with his capture, and "a vicious struggle for power remains to be won."

In order for Iraq to emerge from this power struggle "rooted in the rule of law instead of arbitrary power," the paper says it is "crucial" that Saddam Hussein is given "a fair trial [that] documents for the world the true scope of his crimes." The paper encourages Washington to make available all documents it may have documenting the violent policies of the former regime.

Hussein's "genocidal massacres of Kurds, Shiites, Marsh Arabs [and] others" are crimes on a global scale. For this reason, the paper says, "it would be best to arraign him before an international tribunal. Since the future of Iraq and its neighbors may be shaped by a credible exposure of Saddam's crimes, the impartiality of the court that judges him must be unquestionable."


"The Washington Times" in an editorial says, "Clearly, the best course of action now would be to ensure that Saddam [Hussein] is brought to trial by the special tribunal established last week by the Iraqi Governing Council." The tribunal will try crimes committed between 17 July 1968, "when Saddam and his fellow Ba'athists seized power," and 1 May 2003, when U.S. President George W. Bush declared major combat operations over.

The paper says, "It's time that Saddam faces a public trial before the Iraqi people and be punished for his crimes."


France's "Le Monde" daily discusses the conflicting and/or ambiguous indications coming from various quarters regarding where Saddam Hussein is likely to be tried. U.S. President George W. Bush declared unequivocally on 14 December that the former dictator would now "face the justice he denied to millions" -- but where?

White House spokesman Scott McClellan has told the press vaguely that Iraqis would be involved in any court proceedings regarding Hussein. The current president of the Iraqi Governing Council, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, announced in Madrid that Hussein would be tried in Iraq by its newly formed war crimes tribunal. But the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Ricardo Sanchez, has indicated that a trial remains an open question that will be decided later.

Meanwhile, several U.S. politicians have called for Saddam Hussein to be tried, but "Le Monde" says they seem divided over where and how the court proceedings should take place. Some are calling for a trial by the new Iraqi courts, others for an international trial modeled after the ongoing prosecution of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague.

France's leading daily says in any case, the new Iraqi war crimes tribunal, which will only try crimes committed between 1968 and 2003, should not begin its work until a new government is established in Iraq, expected in July 2004. According to one of the court's establishing clauses, it can petition foreign specialists or the UN for assistance. But international experts question whether the court yet has the legitimacy, impartiality, or capability to function in the current climate of insecurity in Iraq.


An editorial in "The New York Times" says when Saddam Hussein comes to trial, "perhaps the Iraqi people will finally learn whether they were governed for so many years by a cunning tyrant or by one who at some point turned into an out-of-touch thug, allowing his brutal underlings to do whatever they wanted to keep a terrorized populace subdued. Interrogators will certainly be trying to figure out whether weapons of mass destruction were being produced and stockpiled. They may discover that the [U.S. President George H. W.] Bush administration was right in believing that having been thoroughly defeated in 1991 and kept under an international embargo, Mr. Hussein no longer posed a major military threat."

For all the debate over how to best try him, there is "no debate over the fact that Saddam Hussein caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his own people and kept most of the rest in fear and misery."

But the paper says, "Ironically, that was a vision first painted nearly 15 years ago by international human rights groups, during a period in which American presidents, as well as most of the rest of the world, treated him as a valuable ally and a bulwark against Iranian extremism."


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says the one thing all Western states agreed on regarding the war in Iraq was that Saddam Hussein "was a bloodthirsty dictator, a fact that could serve as a step toward a common Western position on Iraq, now that he has been captured."

In practical terms, this would mean Washington must relinquish any attempt to decide what type of tribunal will judge Saddam Hussein and instead must seek agreement among the international community. In addition, common ground might be found on the issue of debt relief, as the billions Iraq owes to Western countries would only further impede its progress toward building a stable country -- and such delays are in no one's interest.

The German daily suggests an agreement on the debt issue could pave the way to avoiding further quarrels over contracts to rebuild Iraq.


Writing in the German business paper "Handelsblatt," Reinhold Vetter discusses the breakdown of talks on an EU constitution and considers Poland's position in particular.

The leaders of 25 current and future members of the European Union failed to reach agreement on 13 December on a draft constitution, stumbling mainly over the problem of how to apportion power among large and small states.

At issue was a proposal to discard a voting system agreed upon three years ago in Nice that gave Spain, a member of the EU, and Poland, which joins next year, almost as much voting weight each as Germany, which has more than twice the population of either. Spain and Poland insist on retaining their rights under this system.

Vetter says the collapse of talks is no real victory for Poland, as it will only drive Warsaw into a corner and lead to its isolation. Poland has achieved exactly the opposite of what it intended, he says. And this will lead to a renewal of the much-discussed two-track system, whereby the ever-more integrated states will leave the others behind.

"It seems," says Vetter, "that Poland has failed to grasp what the responsibilities of future EU members entail. These do not hinge on the number of votes in the European Council or the number of EU commissioners allotted. Much more important are Poland's reform attempts at home, the output of its economy, the work performance of the up-and-coming generation, and the professional performance of its diplomats in regard to international organizations."

RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.