Reflections on the Death of a War Criminal

An experienced capital defender makes the case against Saddam's execution

Saddam could have been tried by an international tribunal formed by the U.N. Security Council, or a “mixed tribunal” like the one used in Sierra Leone, but the U.S. decided to try him within Iraq. The U.S. claim that these actions were taken by a sovereign Iraqi government ring hollow. The Iraqi Special Tribunal was set up by action of the Iraqi Governing Council, whose members were hand-picked by U.S. viceroy Paul Bremer. Bremer maintained veto power over all actions of the IGC, rendering that body an extension of the U.S. occupying force.

So what does all this international law have to do with a moral analysis of Saddam’s execution? As it turns out, a great deal. Pope John Paul II often spoke of the relationship between justice, morality and law. “Justice is, at one and the same time, a moral virtue and a legal concept.” The Church has long recognized the confluence between international humanitarian law and the moral foundations of Catholic doctrine (see sidebar below). The bases of both, according to Church teaching, are the inherent and inalienable dignity all humans possess. We are all one body, one blood, and an affront to the dignity of one—no matter whom—is an affront to the dignity of all. When we protect the dignity of all, in John Paul’s words, we are on the “sure path to peace.”

John Paul II on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Fifty years ago, after a war characterized by the denial for certain peoples of the right even to exist, the General Assembly of the United Nations promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That was a solemn act, arrived at after the sad experience of war, and motivated by the desire formally to recognize that the same rights belong to every individual and to all peoples. In that document we read the following statement, which has resisted the passage of time: ‘Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. The concluding words of the document deserve no less attention: ‘Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein’. It is a tragic fact that today this provision is still being blatantly violated through oppression, conflict and corruption, or, in a more subtle way, through an attempt to reinterpret, or willfully misinterpret, the very definitions contained in the Universal Declaration. That document must be observed integrally, in both its spirit and letter. It remains—as Pope Paul VI of venerable memory declared—one of the United Nations’ principal titles to glory, ‘especially when we think of the importance which is attributed to it as a sure path to peace.’

-Pope John Paul II, on XXXI World Day of Peace, January 1, 1998

Path to Peace

It is hard to see the execution of Saddam Hussein as a step on the path to peace. Significantly, the papal statement on his execution noted: “The killing of the guilty is not the way to rebuild justice and reconcile society, rather there is a risk of nourishing the spirit of revenge and inciting fresh violence.” Almost certainly, the violations of international law by the U.S. have undermined the notion that Saddam’s execution was an act of justice.

Certainly, the actions of those who hung Saddam made clear that revenge and retribution were paramount in their minds. They taunted Saddam on the gallows, an act that should cause all Christians more than a little uneasiness. They chanted the name of Muqtada al-Sadr, who is widely accused of controlling Shiite death squads operating within the army and police. These Iraqi government officials carrying out the execution apparently relished the opportunity to kill one they hated, and made sure the world saw the videos they took of the killing.

But, in the end, we must live with the reality that our government—acting in our names—managed the execution of Saddam from beginning to end. We invaded. We overthrew the Iraqi government. We dissolved Iraqi institutions. We destabilized the country. We wrote new laws, appointed new judges and prosecutors. We created the legal system that would try him and hear his appeal. We failed to protect Saddam’s defense lawyers—three of whom were assassinated during the trial. We handed Saddam over to a government that we have known to be infiltrated with brutal killers.

My depression and sadness over the execution of Saddam remain. Surely, he was no innocent. But neither are we. We bear responsibility for this latest affront to human dignity.