Against Dictators: Use Law, not War

13 December 2002
Article

The argument over what action to take against Saddam Hussein is driven by the rhetoric of war. But can peaceful, legal action against Iraq's ruthless dictator be effective? The long campaign to bring Augusto Pinochet of Chile to justice offers an encouraging precedent.

Published at
openDemocracy
 

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

Peter David's response to Saul Landau rightly points out a flaw in the public statements of some in the peace movement in the United States (although not Landau's own): namely, that too few explicitly condemn Saddam Hussein's atrocities.

It is only fair immediately to point out that those who do speak out against Saddam, such as the religious leaders who are at the heart of the movement, rarely get media coverage. Yet their view is wholly representative of the majority of peace activists, and it is one that I and my colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) also share.

To be explicit, Saddam Hussein should rank among anyone's list of the worst dictators of the modern world. His crimes against the Iraqi people, from the Marsh Arabs in the south to the Kurds in the north, are heinous; his aggressive wars on Iran and Kuwait equally so. He has used chemical weapons, and attempted to acquire nuclear technology. Saddam Hussein has systematically violated the rights embodied in the United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and many other international conventions and treaties, for very many years.

The Pinochet precedent

Given this background, how should the 'international community' respond to Saddam Hussein? Here is one thought, rooted in successful action against an earlier dictator.

Saul Landau, my colleague at the IPS, was a leader of an international movement to oppose another of the great dictators of our time, Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean general who from 1973 to 1990 was responsible for the death, disappearance and torture of thousands inside Chile – as well as others of his 'enemies' around the world, including our IPS colleagues Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt.

Pinochet was similar to Saddam Hussein in that his principal crimes were against his own people, but he also posed a threat to his perceived enemies in other countries. True, Pinochet did not appear to be close to acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but unlike Saddam Hussein he deployed terrorist units around the world that threatened and took lives (see Hope Comes to Chile by Saul Landau).

The vital question is whether we should then have advocated military force to overthrow Pinochet, or should now do to Saddam Hussein, or whether we should address their crimes through other means? The same question, indeed, could be asked of the international community's options towards other dictators that either maintain WMD (as in North Korea and Pakistan) or could acquire them in the next few years (as in Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and the Congo).

In all of these cases, I would like to add my name to Saul Landau's in arguing for the 'Pinochet precedent' over the "Bush precedent" in guiding our approach to reprehensible dictators in today's world.

By this I mean the following. In over a quarter-century of creatively battling Augusto Pinochet, human rights activists successfully used international law to limit his freedom of action and to bring some measure of justice to his victims' families.

Lawyers and citizen groups in Chile, the United States, Argentina, Spain, the United Kingdom, France and elsewhere initiated legal proceedings against Pinochet on the basis of his violations of international law, proceedings that effectively kept the dictator restricted to his own country, eventually resulting in his London arrest in October 1998. This case forever destroyed the illusion of 'sovereign immunity' that dictators claimed to possess to protect themselves from accountability for their crimes. The successful global campaign for an International Criminal Court, which the United States has opposed, gives us another instrument in this fight.

Why, then, not initiate a similar international campaign against Saddam Hussein? If cases against the dictator were initiated in several countries, they would not simply hedge him further within Iraq but further erode his residual international links. Moreover, democratic Iraqi forces would surely support a broad effort to launch an international boycott of the firms (with French and Russian companies to the fore) that hold lucrative contracts with Saddam's regime.

While imperfect, these approaches are vastly more desirable (not to mention more legal) than the Bush alternative, which is to allow the US administration effectively to name the 'dictator of the year' and end his rule through military action. Today it is Saddam Hussein. Tomorrow, who? Who gets to choose which dictator might threaten peace around the world enough to merit his overthrow?

Peter David implies that his answer to this question is: the United Nations. A few words are in order on this vital institution.

The United Nations: signs of renewal

I worked at the UN for several years. I believe that a strengthened and reformed UN is central to the resolution of many of the world's problems, from reckless dictators to global inequality to the HIV/AIDS pandemic to global warming. I believe that progressives need to make UN reform and strengthening central to their agenda.

On this score, I have been heartened by what happened at the UN over the past two months. In September, the US brought an arrogant and unilateralist draft resolution to the Security Council and in essence said: 'Take it or leave it. If you leave it, we will invade on our own.' Over the next eight weeks, many nations of the world stood up and challenged the United States.

The cases of France and Russia are well known. In some ways more remarkable, Security Council member Mexico – long under the thumb of the United States economically – stood up and said no to the US draft language. South Africa rallied dozens of 'non-aligned' nations to stand up in a special Security Council session and denounce unilateral war.

In the end, the United States was forced to revise its draft UN resolution language no less than four times in order to gain Security Council support (see an earlier openDemocracy article). As usual, the US attempted to bully and cajole to ensure the vote would go its way, but nations stood up to the world's lone superpower and in the process helped restore some legitimacy to the UN.

The next phase for the UN is crucial. On 7 December, in accordance with Resolution 1441, Iraq submitted 12,000 pages to the UN that purport to demonstrate that it no longer possesses any WMD. What happens if the US government, upon studying the documents, declares that is finds Iraq in 'material breach' and requests the Security Council to give its sanction to war? And, if the Security Council under such a scenario backs the United States, should the public support war?

Time to choose

In that event, the public will decide. Here are my criteria for assessing this outcome. I would listen carefully to what the UN inspectors and their leaders conclude about Iraq. If they conclude that Iraq has WMD, lies about them, and appears poised to use them, then it will be hard to make a case against a multilateral war against Iraq.

If, on the other hand, the UN inspectors find no evidence of WMD, or if they destroy any weapons they might find, then the US is likely to get UN Security Council support for war only if it bullies or buys nations into compliance. This would be another example of the US once again undermining the UN, and I would argue that we should both speak out against this and oppose war.

At that point, anything could happen. I am encouraged that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke out this past week against the public disparaging of the UN arms inspectors' early efforts by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. I am encouraged that most governments around the world are arguing that the UN inspectors should be given a chance. I am encouraged that a strong peace movement is emerging in the United States and around the world and that it is joined by dissident voices in the military, other parts of the US government, and parts of the business community.

And yes, I am terrified that the US government will try to manipulate the process now under way in order to launch war.

Disarmament or anarchy?

There are two other flaws in Peter David's argument. First, the question of whether Saddam Hussein is deterrable. It is evident that the latter was clearly deterred from using chemical and biological weapons during the Gulf War of 1991. In any case, there are clear and present dangers in attacking Saddam Hussein now. If he does possess WMD, then our invasion is likely to unleash havoc on the region. If he is deterrable and has WMD, then invading makes no sense. If he doesn't have WMD, an invasion by the US will be costly and unjust.

My concern is driven by the long view. Sooner or later, a very large number of irresponsible nations will have WMD; imagine a world where invasion is seen as the answer to this fact. We are in a race between disarmament and anarchy, and to ensure that the former wins, we need to develop a system of inspections that takes everything we learn from Iraq inspections and begins to apply them to other countries – including my own.

Secondly, Peter David would have done well to acknowledge the role of the US in arming and backing Iraq throughout the worst periods of human rights abuses there. The hypocrisy is crucial; those abuses happened on the US government's watch. If current US officials who were involved at the time (Rumsfeld particularly) apologised for their earlier role and acknowledged some complicity, then it might be reasonable to accept at face value the claim that they have any interest in the human rights of Iraqis today. But they deny it.

As this drama unfolds, I encourage the peace movement to pick up on the 'Pinochet precedent' and initiate legal proceedings against Saddam Hussein and other dictators around the world. This would be the best instrument against dictators everywhere, and the most constructive way to open an enlightened alternative path to the current prospect of endless war.