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Saddam’s trial puts Western values in the dock

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Tuesday, 20 December 2005

The trial of Saddam Hussein - “the mother of all trials” - is finally getting into swing and making for some interesting viewing.

We can collectively deplore his ghastly acts, which involved summarily and brutally killing his citizens. But don’t get too comfortable. The trial’s subtext is that the foreign policy and moral code of much of the Western world are also on trial.

We knew for decades that Saddam was mercilessly killing his citizens but elected to do nothing to stop his Baathist regime’s brutal practices, until his bogus weapons of mass destruction supposedly starting posing a threat to our safety. This is far from an isolated event. The typical response to dictators who go about summarily killing thousands of people is feigned concern following an isolated news report, and then the world gets busy doing nothing about it.


Perhaps this is a bit too harsh. Mass murders of civilians by their governments normally rate a mention at the United Nations, and it will often denounce such actions, sometimes even in very serious (nearly icy) tones. But in the end it will almost always “do” nothing.

It’s a hard job saving thousands of innocent people from cruel deaths. This would require setting foot beyond six-star accommodation with top-notch debating facilities. Downright miserable that would be. Thus, the innocent folk who are born in countries ruled by tyrants keep “copping it on the chin”.

The 170 million people killed in internal conflict since World War II massively exceeds the total number killed during both major wars.

There are some appalling examples of governments massacring their “own” people. In 1994 the genocide in Rwanda resulted in 800,000 people being murdered in a 100 days. Pol Pot killed two million, and in the 1970s, 300,000 people were murdered in Uganda and 1.5 million in Ethiopia. It’s easy to multiply such examples.

In all cases, the rest of the world knowingly stood idly by - although some of these events sparked “furious” debates at UN headquarters.

Time for a perspective check. Saddam’s trial should be used to put in place a clear framework regarding the international community’s obligation to prevent governments slaughtering their own citizens.


As international law stands, the main obstacle to getting rid of tyrants who kill thousands of their own citizens is state sovereignty. This concept, however, is overrated. Invisible lines on the earth’s surface have no moral standing and can’t trump moral standards, which are of universal application.

In reality, the main disinclination to stop preventable mass killings of strangers in other parts of the world is that they are strangers - in other parts of our world. It’s true the world (or parts of it) has, on rare occasions, “stepped up”, drawn a line in the sand and said “no” to despots, stopping them from more mass killings of their citizens. Successful interventions include Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1979, Tanzania’s intervention in the same year to remove Idi Amin from Uganda and NATO’s invasion of Yugoslavia in 1999.

The success of these interventions and absence of criticism demonstrate that state sovereignty is no barrier to humanitarian interventions. In fact it shows that respect for state sovereignty is an excuse rather than a reason for inaction by the world community.

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Article edited by Allan Sharp.
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This is a summary of Professor Bagaric’s paper, “Transforming Humanitarian Intervention from an Expedient Accident to a Categorical Imperative,” in the Brooklyn Journal of International Law. A version of this piece was published in the Canberra Times (December 7, 2005).

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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