26 September 2005

Saddam Hussein and the death penalty

Writing in today's New York Times [free registration required], op-ed columnist Gary J. Bass argues that Saddam Hussein should not be executed immediately if he is found guilty in the upcoming trial in which he is charged with the massacre of at least 143 men and boys from the village of Dujail in 1982.

Professor Bass is right, but this is more by accident that design, because his reasoning is all wrong. Bass' argument, when whittled right down to its essence, is this: don't execute Saddam Hussein after the first trial. The first trial is only meant as a test case anyway. Wait until all the other charges have been brought against Hussein, until he's been convicted of everything under the sun, and then execute him. This will mean that all the injured parties get their day in court, everyone will feel that justice has been done, and we can all live happily ever after while Saddam Hussein hangs.

He's right about the necessity for Saddam Hussein to be tried for as many of his crimes as practicable. He's right about the necessity for all injured parties, be they Kurdish, Shia or Sunni, to get their chance to ensure that Hussein faces justice for his crimes against their communities. But he's dead wrong in suggesting that the death penalty should be considered an appropriate and acceptable punishment. It should not. Not in this case, and not ever.

The death penalty is inhuman. The death penalty violates the right to life, an inalienable human right. The death penalty is irrevocable and can be inflicted on the innocent (granted, not really a possibility in this particular case). The death penalty has never been shown to act as an effective deterrent. Quite simply, the death penalty seeks to right a wrong with a similar wrong.

For all those reasons and more, the death penalty should be abolished. It should not be an option in Iraq, just as it should not be an option in Iran, China, the United States, or anywhere else for that matter.

Now I appreciate that it is difficult for a columnist in the New York Times to come out and say such things, what with the United States being the fourth most execution-happy country in the world after China, Iran and Viet Nam, in that order. (Yes, you read that right, the United States executes more people than Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Egypt, Uzbekistan, etc.) But that's exactly what has to happen, if the US is finally going to come around and join the ranks of the majority of countries around the world which have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. It's going to take public intellectuals with a forum (such as an op-ed column in the NYT), and prominent thinkers with influence to make it clear over and over again that the death penalty is not ok under any circumstances. And until that bastion of democracy and freedom that is the USA finally abolishes the death penalty, what hope is there for seeing it abolished in the rest of the world, especially while the US is busy actively exporting its brand of democracy and freedom left, right and centre?

And before anyone starts accusing me of being a Saddam-lover, or terrorist-apologist or whatever the term-of-abuse-du-jour might be, forget about it, because I'm not. I am merely an opponent of the death penalty, in all its forms and manifestations around the world. I am in no way a supporter of, apologist for, or sympathiser with Saddam Hussein. I think he should spend the rest of his days, every last one of them, behind bars. And I think that even that would not even come close to being punishment enough. But I do not believe that the death penalty should be an option. Not for Saddam Hussein, and not for anyone else either.

[If you're interested in signing an appeal addressed to African Heads of State and Government, calling for the abolition of the death penalty throughout Africa, follow this link.]