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Interview: Reconciliation in Iraq

Maik Meuser (tkw)October 19, 2005

Wednesday marks the start of the trial against former the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein. Human rights activist Helmut Kreicker says it is an important step towards building a new Iraq.

Saddam Hussein on trialImage: AP

Dr. Kreicker, what do you expect from the work of the Iraqi special tribunal?

The tribunal and its verdict will be significant in the path towards reconciliation in Iraq. It's a legal declaration that those who committed the crimes are guilty, and is, as such, incredibly important for the further development of the country, just as the Nuremberg Trials were important for Germany's post-war development in that they attributed the crimes to individuals. It's also important to have a legal verdict in order to prevent the history books from being revised further down the line. The verdict will not, and is not intended to rehabilitate the perpetrators of the crimes in any way, but it should serve society.

What has to be taken into consideration when constructing a court such as this one?

Most important is its legitimacy. The most important function of the tribunal is to satisfy Iraqi society. On that point, the special tribunal is slightly flawed, as it was not initiated by Iraq but the occupying powers. Under international law, however, there are no problems with the tribunal. Whether its decision is accepted or not will depend on how it sets about its work.

How should one observe the Iraqi special tribunal with regard to international law?

What we have here is a purely national Iraqi court, which will base its decision on international law. It would have also been possible to establish an international tribunal, set up by the United Nations, or a national court which would have worked with the support of the UN, but neither is the case.

Did the Iraqi insistence that the death penalty be an option prevent the creation of an international tribunal?

The Iraqis did indeed insist upon the death penalty, which made it impossible to attach the tribunal to the United Nations. But first and foremost it was the Americans who prevented an international court, at least a United Nations court.

The tribunal is made up of Iraqi lawyers. Is that a problem?

There are advantages and disadvantages to an all-Iraqi tribunal. One plus is definitely that it will make it harder for the people of Iraq to claim that foreign powers are presiding over them. Given that international law is primarily characterized by America and Europe, there may not be too much acceptance of a verdict passed down by lawyers from that culture. There is, however, a danger that the tribunal does not have enough qualified and independent lawyers, and it will probably emerge later that a couple of people on the tribunal used to hold positions in Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. There is also the problem that Iraqi lawyers are probably no great experts on international law, but they can, under the tribunal statute, consult with external experts.

Of what importance is the tribunal to the world beyond Iraq?

What is particularly interesting is that the Americans, who reject the idea of an international criminal court, have basically copied its basis, the so-called Roman statute, as the blueprint for the tribunal in Iraq. The Max-Planck Institute once did a comparative study which showed that the United States does not condemn international law as vehemently as it might seem, it just doesn't want to have to answer to its jurisdiction itself. What this shows is that international law is now internationally recognized.

Helmut Kreicker director in the fields of foreign and international law at the Max Planck Institute.