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Will A War Crimes Tribunal Be Part Of A Post-War Iraq? - 2003-04-09

There’s growing debate over how past war crimes and human rights abuses should be prosecuted in a post-war Iraq. Bush administration officials reportedly want a new Iraqi government to handle prosecutions. But human rights groups say Iraqi courts would not be ready in time and could be tainted by any US assistance. A legal expert looks at the problem of seeking justice once the war in Iraq ends.

Neil Kritz is the director of the Rule of Law program at the US Institute of Peace. He is the editor of a three-volume work, “Transitional Justice: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes.” And he’s helped answer questions about war crimes in such places at Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa Bosnia Herzegovina and Cambodia.

He says any court or tribunal dealing with war crimes or human rights abuses “must begin with the premise it will be essential for Iraq’s reconstruction and reconciliation.” Mr. Kritz says this can be approached in a number of ways.

He says, "One, through a war crimes tribunal - through prosecutions of lesser crimes as the second half of that first element. Second, through the vetting process that will remove many people implicated in past abuses from various positions within the bureaucracy and within various sectors of society – even if they’re not prosecuted. And third, through some kind of a broader public process, truth and reconciliation type process that will allow society to really deal with these issues in a broader and more in-depth way."

He says it is important for the Iraqis to take the lead on such matters – but says they can’t do it alone. The U-S Institute of Peace official says, “It would benefit very significantly from having fairly extensive but carefully selected international assistance.”

Mr. Kritz says, "That would likely mean judges and prosecutors from outside the country, ideally from the neighborhood. Respected jurists from various Arab countries – not the model of the Yugoslavia or Rwanda tribunals that have been established, which are held outside of their country. And in which the language of the tribunal is a language foreign to the country and everything has to go through translation in a variety of languages. But something that will take place that will be in the country, in Baghdad that will involve Iraqis along with other Arab jurists to really try to address those issues."

Human rights groups are also concerned about which jurists would be invited to sit on a tribunal. They say current Iraqi judicial officials are untrustworthy, while any expatriate Iraqis have yet to win acceptance in the country. Despite that, Mr. Kritz says, “There certainly has been a fairly broad attitude within various countries in the region with respect to the crimes and atrocities committed by the Iraqi regime.”

He says, "Certainly a very strong revulsion on the part of many throughout the Arab world for this regime, even if there is disagreement with respect to the war and the way in which the regime is removed. That doesn’t change the fact that there are many in the Arab world who feel justifiably very strongly these kinds of atrocities should not have been allowed to occur and need to be dealt with."

Some human rights groups also say if the United States is involved in an Iraqi war crimes tribunal, it could send the wrong message to the Arab and Muslim world. That is, that the United States is trying to control the proceedings. But Neil Kritz disagrees.

"I think that the United States, given its extensive involvement right now and its appropriate and continued involvement in standing up and helping to assist Iraqis in establishment of government - in delivery of humanitarian assistance - in dealing with each of the issues that will have to be dealt with - the US government, I think, should play an active role in assisting and facilitating the process of accountability," he says.

He believes any tribunal would try to deal with crimes and abuses through the context of international law. But he says he would expect any tribunal to compliment existing Islamic law and help in its implementation.