New College of the Humanities

Tyrants on Trial

As preparations are made for Saddam Hussein’s trial in Iraq, Clive Foss examines the precedents for bringing tyrants to justice and finds the process fraught with political complexity.

At first sight it seems obvious that Saddam Hussein is guilty of crimes against humanity and should face justice and an appropriate penalty. If the justice he is to face were Islamic, the process could be simple and swift: he could be charged with anything from betrayal of trust to making war against God, and would be faced by witnesses before a single judge who would almost certainly find him guilty and order his death by beheading, to be carried out immediately. Although he could speak in his own defence, there would be no lawyers and no appeals. That, however, is not going to happen. Saddam will be tried by a specially appointed Iraqi tribunal, determined to be seen to be fair and to show that the norms of international justice prevail in Iraq. The trial will almost certainly be long and complicated.

Saddam is not alone: another ex-dictator, Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, is currently on trial, and Augusto Pinochet of Chile may soon be. More than thirty dictators have been put on trial since the seventeenth century; they are, however, a minority. Many dictators, like Stalin or Mao Zedong, have died peacefully after long reigns; others, deposed in coups (especially in Latin America), have been allowed to retire or leave the country; some real monsters – Idi Amin and Pol Pot the most notorious – have avoided justice altogether.

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