Try Hussein for Rights Crimes

Jeri Laber, a founder of Human Rights Watch, is the author of a memoir, "The Courage of Strangers: Coming of Age With the Human Rights Movement" (2002, Public Affairs).

Slobodan Milosevic is on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and I am a witness, summoned by the prosecution to prove that Milosevic had been notified of his government’s war crimes in Croatia and had failed to take action to stop them. The “Butcher of the Balkans” has been humbled -- put behind bars, on trial for genocide and other crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, Saddam Hussein has not.

Hussein, instead, has remained a formidable power and a major threat, not just to his own people but to the world, suspected of harboring chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

At the same time that my organization, Human Rights Watch, called for an international criminal tribunal to prosecute crimes in the former Yugoslavia, we also called for the prosecution of Hussein for genocide against the Kurds of Iraq, but we were unsuccessful. If world leaders had shown courage and foresight a decade ago, Hussein’s situation today might be quite different.

In the early 1990s, when the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia began, the prospect of establishing an international court to try Milosevic seemed slight; that he might be brought before it seemed impossible. But because the former Yugoslavia was of no special economic or strategic significance to the outside world, countries that were loath to intervene militarily were willing to take up our call.


A tribunal was established in 1993. Milosevic was indicted in 1999 and was ousted in 2000 by a new government in Serbia that later arrested him and turned him over to The Hague. In February 2002, his trial began. The wheels of justice turn slowly but impressively.

With Iraq it was different. We were not successful in our efforts in the 1990s to bring Hussein to justice, despite damning evidence -- 18 tons of Iraqi government documents attesting to the deliberate 1988 Anfal campaign of genocide against the Iraqi Kurds.

We could prove that Hussein was responsible for the execution of some 100,000 Kurds, many of them in mass killing fields, and for the destruction of almost every Kurdish village in Iraq. He used poison gas against Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq war and then turned his chemical weapons against his own citizens in Halabja and many other Kurdish villages.

But there was no consensus in the U.N. Security Council when it came to Iraq. France and Russia aspired to commercial dealings with Iraq and threatened to veto the establishment of a tribunal. China, concerned about reaction to its treatment of Tibetans, was disinclined to see the Kurdish issue raised. Corporations in the United States, Germany and various other European countries had been supplying Iraq with advanced technology for its weapons program during the Iran-Iraq war, a war in which the U.S. tacitly supported Iraq as a counterweight to the spread of Iranian fanaticism.


Neither was any government willing to take on Iraq in a civil suit before the World Court, for fear of losing business or of alienating Arab governments. Yet if Hussein had been branded as a war criminal then and had been ostracized by a united international community, he might have felt compelled to cooperate with weapons inspectors. His indictment might also have undermined his standing at home.

It is not too late. Although the newly established permanent International Criminal Court does not have retroactive jurisdiction, Hussein can and should be brought before an ad hoc international tribunal and tried for his crimes. The mechanics for this should be in place before any regime change in Iraq.

The international community is now mobilizing, not because of human rights crimes in Iraq but to rid Iraq of its alleged weapons of mass destruction. If it had responded earlier to Hussein’s brutality against his citizens, this effort would have greater credibility.