No one could possibly resist feeling a stab of satisfaction on October 19, when pictures were wired round the world of Saddam Hussein sitting behind bars in a court of law. The courtesy of a trial — even a kangaroo one — was far more than he offered hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Iraqis and others killed as direct or indirect results of his brutal rule in Iraq. But although few would have complained had he simply been shot on sight — preferrably by Iraqis rather than US troops — there are serious questions that must qualify one’s satisfaction.
The unfortunate reality is that Saddam is being tried not for reasons of justice, or to uncover the extent of his crimes, but to provide a gloss of legitimacy for the US’s occupation of Iraq and the political order it is establishing there to defend its interests in the post-Saddam period. No-one could possibly believe that the US is motivated by justice or human rights, considering its dismissal of international law to go into Iraq in the first place, or its own treatment of political prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and other places. Nor can it claim to be concerned for justice for those killed by Saddam, either in Iraq or in the wars he started against Iran and Kuwait. For much of his rule, Saddam was supported and sponsored by the very forces that have since deposed him and put him on trial, for precisely the reasons that the bloody wars he fought were for their interests in the region more than his own or Iraq’s. Iran has demanded that Saddam be charged for crimes against Iran during Iraq’s long war against the country; that is unlikely to happen because it would be politically unacceptable to the US, who provided him with the technology and ingredients for the chemical weapons that he used against Iranian troops and villages.
In fact, the last thing that the Americans want is for the extend and details of Saddam’s crimes to come out. That is why he (and the seven other former members his Ba’ath government) are being tried only for the killing of 140 Shi’i villagers in the early 1980s. This is described as a sample case for which the prosecution can provide clear and unequivocal proof, justifying a quick death sentence without the risk of Saddam revealing anything too damaging to the court’s political architects. Saddam will no doubt be prevented from making political points that embarrass his captors on the grounds that these are irrelevant to the charges being tried.
The truth is that there can be no justice without political legitimacy. However obvious it may be that Saddam is a criminal of almost the highest order, who deserves worse than anything he can be sentenced to, the fact is that he is small fry compared to the big fish who are immune from any legal process and instead sit in judgement on him. But Bush, Blair and their like cannot evade justice for ever, however politically powerful they may be; a time will come, in the next world if not this one, when they will face real justice.