The regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq has frequently been accused of war crimes, and a U.S.-backed effort is under way to bring top officials to trial. In the first part of a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the effort and its progress to date.
Prague, 24 February 2000 (RFE/RL)) -- The indictment campaign against the Iraqi regime -- known as Indict -- was formally launched in 1997 before the British House of Commons, the U.S. Congress, and the European Parliament.
The effort has two primary goals.
First is gathering evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his top lieutenants have engaged in war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The crimes include using chemical weapons against Iraqi-Kurd civilians, targeting Iraqi-Shiites in military operations, and carrying out mass executions during Iraq's 1990 occupation of Kuwait.
The second, and ultimate goal, is to convince the United Nations to establish a war-crimes tribunal for Iraq similar to those which already exist for Rwanda and Bosnia.
But in the three years since it was launched, Indict has gotten off to a slow start -- becoming operational only in the last six months. Organizers say the reason is that obtaining funding for the effort has proved to be a time-consuming process.
The leader of Indict, which has its headquarters in London, is Ann Clwyd, a member of the British parliament. She told RFE/RL that the U.S. Congress earmarked a total of some $2 million for the indictment effort under the Iraqi Liberation Act of 1997, but the organization did not see the money until last year. Clwyd says:
"Those funds did not come to us until July 4 of last year. We had hoped they would come much earlier in the year because Congress had agreed that in October of 1988. So it does mean that it is really for the past six months that we have been able to take on the staff specialists that we needed to start sifting the evidence and to compile the box files on members of the regime whom we wish to see indicted."
Clwyd says that of the $2 million, Indict so far has received about half a million. The Congress also supports four other U.S.-based human rights organizations at very much smaller levels which are cooperating with Indict in the campaign.
With the money, Indict has hired a staff of seven, including two researchers. It is now concentrating on gathering evidence which will permit it to both build a case against Iraqi leaders and lobby UN members to establish a tribunal.
Iraqi opposition groups, many of which have sought to launch an indictment effort against Saddam for years, endorse the campaign and have promised to attend a major public awareness-raising convention to be held in Paris in April. But some opposition figures criticize how Indict has spent some of its money so far.
RFE/RL spoke with Sahib Al-Hakim of the Organization for Human Rights in Iraq, which is based in London. He said all drives to indict Iraq's leaders are welcome. But he said Indict should focus less on publicity efforts and more on applying international pressure upon UN Security Council members. Al-Hakim says:
"Indict has a lot of money and they should not do what they are doing now. They are producing or distributing bags [on which is written] Indict Saddam Hussein or giving badges to people to [wear]. ... What they should do is to convince the international community about the crimes."
He says Indict should particularly focus on convincing China, France and Russia to join the effort. So far, only the United States and Britain have publicly said they support a war crimes tribunal. Al-Hakim says:
"What we need is a political gesture from three countries which are playing a very important role at the moment in the United Nations: China, France and Russia. The problem of indicting Saddam Hussein is a political decision by those countries who are looking for their interests rather than the interest of the Iraqi people."
He also says that the indictment campaign should be headed by Iraqis, because they are the victims of Saddam and know Saddam better than anyone else.
As Indict now becomes a fully functioning organization, it begins a process which all parties agree will require years of hard work and has no certain guarantee of success.
One task which is certain to be painstaking and lengthy is gathering a strong enough body of evidence of human rights abuses to meet the rigorous legal tests of any court proceedings. Clwyd says:
"We are concentrating on getting information on various members of the regime because unless you have got the detailed information, the witness statements, and all those things that are necessary for an indictment, then the legal experts will only throw out your attempt to get somebody indicted."
But even with strong evidence in hand, it could be years more before the campaign is able to convince the United Nations to convene a tribunal. To form the court, nine of the 15 member states of the Security Council -- including all five permanent members -- must pass a resolution supporting it.
In the meantime, the campaign hopes that, by raising public awareness of Saddam's crimes and compiling evidence of them, it will encourage countries to arrest suspected Iraqi officials when they travel out of Iraq.
One early sign of how that might affect Iraqi leaders even long before a UN tribunal exists was seen late last year when one of Saddam's top lieutenants visited Vienna for medical treatment.
An Austrian politician who backs the indictment effort filed a criminal complaint against Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri for human rights abuses. Even before the courts could consider the complaint, al-Douri hurriedly returned to the safety of Iraq -- just two weeks after he had left.
(The second part of this three-part series looks at the challenges of collecting evidence for trying Iraq's leaders.)