Global Policy Forum

Mystery Tribunal

Washington Post
April 5, 2004

The Justice Department denies any detailed knowledge of it. The State Department's ambassador for human rights refuses -- "at this time" -- to answer questions about it. The Defense Department refers questions to the Coalition Provisional Authority -- and the CPA doesn't respond to queries about it. Given the nearly complete absence of information, how is it possible to judge the progress of Iraq's war crimes tribunal?

It isn't -- or only with great difficulty, according to outside human rights advocates who have been watching the process, or trying to watch the process, for several months. Officially, the CPA created the tribunal in December. Its main goal is to try Saddam Hussein and his top henchmen. Its statute was jointly written by coalition lawyers -- American, British, Australian -- and Iraqis associated with the Iraqi Governing Council. After what those involved say was an extensive consultation process with a wide range of Iraqi groups -- an overly "secretive" process, some outsiders complain -- the decision was made to give primary control over the tribunal to Iraqis and not to the United Nations. Few people are quibbling about that decision, or about the statute, which has been largely based on the one used by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

But many people would like to know more about how the Iraqi tribunal intends to move forward. The Iraqis need rules of procedure and evidence, forensic experts to examine witnesses and mass graves, training for judges and access to Baath Party archives. None of these appear to be materializing quickly. The rules of procedure have not yet been written. Worse, it isn't clear how many outside forensic experts are on the ground at all: According to a leaked report, the Justice Department sent a team to Iraq to do forensic work, but departmental spokesmen won't answer any questions about it. The apparently clandestine nature of the team's activities bodes ill for the entire process. This tribunal has to be seen as neutral and objective, in Iraq and around the world, if it is to be perceived as legitimate. Neither American military personnel nor Iraqis who happen to live near mass graves count as neutral "experts." Rumors about what might be written in secret archives are not sufficient to write indictments either, let alone sentences. Yet the Baathist archives, 80 percent of which are in the control of the Iraqi Survey Group -- which has been looking for weapons of mass destruction -- apparently are still not accessible to Iraqis either.

It's much too early to condemn the tribunal altogether. An injection of money -- millions have been promised, but little has arrived -- as well as legal expertise and, above all, openness could rescue the process and prevent the tribunal from being perceived as an American kangaroo court. It's hard to overstate the importance of moving quickly: The trial of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen will provide an extraordinary opportunity for the U.S. government to justify, in part, its invasion of Iraq. More important, it will provide Iraqis with a clearer sense of their own history and a set of reasons to continue the fight against insurgents who want to bring back a Baathist state. Coalition authorities must ensure that the war crimes tribunal is on track before the coalition hands over authority in June.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the Iraq Tribunal
More Information on the Iraq Crisis
More Information on International Criminal Tribunals and Special Courts


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