The execution by hanging of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein reverberates beyond the civil war in Iraq or even American imperial politics. Praise, unease, and criticism has come from all over the world, including opinions about what the execution symbolizes about the war, America’s role, and the possible future impact it might have for the teetering Iraqi state. Russia has been one such place that has offered its views. So here I want to point to what some Russian commentators are saying about the execution. Before I do that I want to provide some general context and comments about the execution and its aftermath.
The trial of Saddam Hussein was one of the few things the Bush Administration could claim as a success of the Iraq debacle. Making the “Butcher of Baghdad” accountable to his crimes is undisputedly a good thing. But the trial was flawed from the start as the Americans had to balance imperial rule with colonial sovereignty. The desired conviction of Hussein came with a price. The limits of America’s ability to re-forge Iraq into even a nascent shadow of itself proved daunting as the trial quickly became a microcosm for sectarian strife. No one would have imagined even two years ago that a “turning point” such as the capture and trial of Saddam Hussein might signal a turning point of a different sort; one that could ultimately be to the Untied States’ detriment.
The taunting that Hussein endured before and at the scaffold has proved an embarrassment for the United States. So much so, that it has distanced itself from the hanging with statements that it tried to delay it. In a news conference in Baghdad, US military spokesman Major General William Caldwell told reporters, “Had we been physically in charge at that point we would have done things differently.” Adding, “At this point the government of Iraq has the opportunity to take advantage of what has occurred and really reach out now in an attempt to bring more people back into the political process and bring the Sunnis back.”
No such luck. For many Sunnis, Hussein’s execution only proves what they already suspected of the Shia controlled government—that it is a state where the Shia majority seeks to exact revenge on the Sunni minority. The al-Maliki government is also embarrassed and is now investigating the abuse. The guards were Sadrists, who chanted the name of their populist Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr just before Hussein hang.
It now appears that one of the prison guards was arrested for making the grisly cell phone video of the hanging. However, some are claiming that Iraqi National Security Advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie was the one holding the phone. In all, Hussein’s calling the whole scene the “gallows of shame” rings eerily appropriate.
Shame is the same word Christopher Hitchens, who supported the invasion of Iraq used in a commentary on Slate. Far from bringing anything like “closure,” he wrote, “the hanging ensures that the poison of Saddamism will stay in the Iraqi bloodstream, mingling with other related infections such as confessional fanaticism and the sort of video sadism that has until now been the prerogative of al-Qaida’s dehumanized ghouls. We have helped to officiate at a human sacrifice. For shame.
Hitchens is correct to point to the American’s complicity but unfortunately his move to political morality is overshadowed by his Orientalism. His usage of biological vocabulary–“bloodstream,” “infections,”—suggests that an Iraqi civil society is foul’s gold since the “Iraqi” are of a lesser species.
That said, many are wondering whether Hussein has become exactly the opposite of what his hanging was supposed to be. Instead of becoming a means of reconciliation, he has become a martyr, an image that he himself cultivated as he stood calmly, yet defiantly, with a noose around his neck.
In regard to Russia’s views on the event, it should first be stated that Russia opposed the United States’ invasion of Iraq from the beginning and there is no doubt that every failure on the part of the Bush Administration has been an opportunity for Russian officials and pundits to lob criticism. Russian views on Hussein’s execution prove no different in this regard.
It is true that when it comes to human rights, Russia has few legs to stand on. A quick rebuttal would be to remind Russia that the pot is black too. The violence, torture, and treatment of the Chechens parallels Iraq, though not equal in scope of death or devastation. Tit for tat gets one nowhere especially since the list of “tits” is as endless as the “tats”. The truth of the matter is that Russia is the nearest geopolitical power in the region. It is both a partner and an adversary in the Great Game. This makes it important to review how the Hussein hanging is being viewed in Russia.
Even before the execution Russian political analysts were warning that it could increase inter-religious tensions and violence in Iraq. In an opinion for RIA Novosti, Russian law professor Mikhail Barshchevsky argued that any verdict by the Iraqi courts could be questioned because they were not independent from either the al-Maliki government or the American occupying forces. Hussein’s execution could make him a martyr that could be exploited by the insurgency and could lead to an increase in the violence.
Another commentator for RIA Novosti, Marianna Belenkaya, drew similar conclusions. While all nationalities in Iraq can celebrate the end of a bloody dictator, the execution, she maintains, “has left a bitter aftertaste.” “The situation,” she adds, “reminds me of the recent death of another dictator, Augusto Pinochet, who, although charged with crimes against humanity, was never tried. The trial was called off because of the dictator’s old age. When he died, hundreds of his opponents said they were sorry Pinochet had died without a trial and a sentence. They wanted a legal punishment rather than his death. Unlike Pinochet, Hussein was sentenced to death, yet not all of his crimes have been proven in court.”
Writing in Izvestia, columnist Maksim Iusin asks why Hussein was tried for a crime he was least known for—the revenge killing of 148 inhabitants of Dujail in 1982 following a failed assassination attempt on his life. “It turns out,” Iusin writes, “that the most horrific crimes of Saddam’s regime remain in the shadows. No one carries any kind of responsibility for them. A “Nuremburg Trial” of the dictatorship did not happen.” In the end he argues that the Americans chose the crime that was easiest to ensure conviction. It also allowed American complicity in Hussein’s regime to also be left in the shadows.
In a statement after the hanging, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mikhail Kamynin told reporters, “The situation in Iraq is heading into a worst-case scenario. The country is slipping into violence and is on the verge of a large-scale civil conflict. Saddam Hussein’s death can further aggravate the military-political situation and increase ethnic and religious tensions.”
And finally, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDRP staged a minor protest in front of the Iraqi embassy in Moscow to oppose the execution. Forty four people attended to the demonstration, which wasn’t sanctioned by the police and no one was arrested.
These views are par for the course in that they echo much of what everyone outside of Russia is already saying. Still, there is something being said in Barshchevsky’s and Belenkaya’s commentaries that is different from the rest. Interestingly, both made the same conclusion as to the symbolism of Hussein’s trial and execution. Both argued that they were important signal to heads of state, “a warning that sooner or later they will be called to account for their actions. Nobody will get away with crimes like the ones for which Saddam was tried. Heads of state are not immune and will have to answer for their deeds.”
This all sounds good but I can’t help seeing such a view as hopelessly na?ve. Hussein is hardly the last villain to torture their own population. Nor should Hussein’s trial and execution be seen as a product of any international consensus. The fact that Hussein was tried in Iraq and not in the Hague like Slobodan Milosevic suggests that either there was no international outcry over Hussein or the Americans and their Iraqi puppets wanted to stage manage the trial to their own political benefit. It seems that on this last point Hussein has had the last laugh.
The view that Hussein’s conviction says that the world will hold dictators accountable also masks America’s role in all this. After all, Europe stood and watched ethnic cleansing and murder in the former Yugoslavia until the Americans got involved. No one cared about Rwanda just like there is little real concern about Darfur. One should point out that Pinochet, a US ally, though tried did not get similar and arguably deserved treatment. Finally it is highly unlikely that George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield will ever be held accountable for Iraq. Just like Yeltsin or Putin will never pay for Chechnya.
It is possible to imagine that if Hussein didn’t fall out of the favor with the US, he would have died a natural death. That is, if his own population didn’t rise against him first. No, the trial of Saddam Hussein is a message for sure, but not as Barshchevsky and Belenkaya suggest. It shows that human rights and being held responsible for their violation are politically conditioned. Their enforcement only involves lip service to Enlightenment notions and not their practice. If the trail and execution of Saddam Hussein is any indication, accountability for violating human rights has been made a farce altogether.