Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
This weekend Saddam Hussein was sentenced to hang for crimes against humanity. In particular, he was convicted of ordering the massacre of 148 Shiite villagers in 1982 at a place called Dujail. The BBC tells the story of Dujail
quite well, but the brief synopsis is this: Hussein went to Dujail about 18 months after the start of the Iran-Iraq war to rally support for his cause. During the visit, a number of Shiite men associated with the opposition Dawa Party ambushed Hussein's convoy. According to the BBC report, most of the attackers were killed in the gun battle that ensued. However, in the hours after the attack, Hussein's security forces rounded up thousands of men, women and children and sent them to detention camps. The security forces also destroyed most of the village and its surrounding farm land. Ultimately, 148 men and boys were sentenced to death by the Baathist's Revolutionary Court. Forty-six of them died of torture before they even went on trial. Some of those sentenced were too young to be executed, so they were held in captivity until they reached the age of 18.
Hussein still faces multiple charges, including those associated with the use of poison gas to kill 5,000 Kurdish citizens in Halabja in 1988 and the deaths of civilians in the wake of the first Gulf War.
Serious as the Baathist crimes in Dujail may have been, it is worth asking if they truly do constitute the label "crimes against humanity." And further, it is worth asking what, if any, restoration of justice the recent trial and current occupation of Iraq has brought about.
There are two parts to the term "crimes against humanity." First, the term is applied to transgressions of extreme severity and scope. And second, it is applied to acts of particular intent. Crimes against humanity are not perpetrated at random, but rather crafted of a conscious logic to degrade a specific group of people beyond the level of full humanity. This degradation extends not just to the victims of the act itself, but to all members of the targeted group.
It is difficult to argue either for or against the first consideration's application to the events of Dujail. Certainly torture to the point of death is as severe a crime as one can think of. But the scope of the events is harder to pin down. On the one hand, 148 is not that many people. Nearly that many died in the Station Night Club fire in Rhode Island several years ago, and no one has ever applied the term "crime against humanity" to that incident. But on the other hand, how can you go around saying that the murder of 150 civilians affected "not that many" people. I mean there were 150 of them.
The second set of considerations provides a deeper look into the complexity of dealing with crimes against humanity. In instances where crimes attack the very idea of humanity - where acts are specifically designed to strip people of that identity and all its moral entitlements - people are compelled to act in the interest of ending any ongoing crimes or residual effects. Do the events of Dujail meet this test? Would they justify - or, indeed, compel - the actions necessary to remove from power anyone associated with the perpetration of those crimes? I have a difficult time answering "yes" to either of these questions.
Whatever the reason for US involvement in Iraq, it is important to consider the practical consequences of our presence there. The ultimate point of restorative justice - of any steps taken to address and redress the effects of crimes against humanity - is to break the cycles of human denigration that such crimes entail.
Undeniably, US involvement in Iraq has done nothing to quell the dehumanization forced upon Iraqi citizens during the Hussein regime. In fact, it has exacerbated the sectarian conflict and, if anything, spread a culture of dehumanization. Further, the trial and ensuing conviction of Saddam Hussein has not brought to light or confronted past wrongs in such a way as to encourage healing and atonement between groups of people. It too has served to deepen the sectarian divide in Iraqi society. As such, the trial marks a significant setback in the legacy of human efforts to redress crimes against humanity.