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Commentary: Justice for Hussein must hinge on values he disdained

12/19/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A photograph of Liberato C. Bautista is available. For a related commentary, see UMNS #597.

A UMNS Commentary By Liberato C. Bautista*

The war in Iraq and the recent capture of its brutal ruler, Saddam Hussein, evoke deep personal memories as well as ethical reflections for me. The capture presents a major challenge and an enormous responsibility for the United States and the coalition that prosecuted the war in Iraq, but more profoundly, for the United Nations.

As the case against Saddam Hussein moves forward, it is important that the sentiments and resolve of both the Iraqi nation and the international community be taken seriously. We must proceed with all the available expertise in national and international law so that justice deserved is justice rendered. The highest degree of fairness and impartiality in international justice must be observed.

These related events of war and captivity carry, for me, notions of life and death. I was a church youth leader at the height of the Marcos military dictatorship in the Philippines. After graduating from college, I became the human rights coordinator of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines. My human rights work over the years has provided me views of suffering, death and life that continue to inform my Christian faith and convictions.

Today, working for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society at the United Nations, I hope for a future that is more just and peaceful - one where nation will not lift sword against nation any longer.

The international community has the United Nations as a venue to rally people all over the world to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights and the dignity and worth of every person. When those human rights and international laws are violated, the United Nations provides directions, and in some instances tribunals, for meting out justice.

The International Criminal Court provides a model for how the world community may help in the trial of Saddam Hussein. The necessary quest is for justice - for the accused Hussein and for the aggrieved, in this case, the Iraqi people. Closure is also important for the peoples of the world, who must now come to terms both with their concern and indifference toward Iraq's suffering under Hussein.

The "ultimate justice" and the "ultimate penalty" for Saddam Hussein, and for all military dictators, will have to come from the very values and instruments - of peace and human rights, of democracy and good governance, of law and justice - that he disdained and trashed. The international community, under the aegis of the United Nations, has expertise in these instruments, including lessons learned from past mistakes.

The decent way to handle Hussein's case is to invoke life-giving measures and not to use the same instrument of death - like capital punishment - that he wantonly used in running Iraq. Life, which human institutions cannot give, is the same life that an institution cannot take away.

Hussein may now be tried for crimes against humanity, war crimes or genocide, but that does not license any of us to deny him the workings of a Christ who alone has the power to redeem, restore and transform human beings.

When dictators are denied the very life that they denied their people, then the logic of death grips us. There is another way in Jesus Christ. The logic of life is in our Christian affirmation that in Jesus Christ's life, death and resurrection, we have been promised life.
By Christ's ransom, we are called to no longer inflict death upon members of the resurrection community, which is the church.

The logic of life is found in the affirmation of human dignity in every person, and hence the protection of that dignity in every right that is now found in the pantheon of human rights already in place through the United Nations. Justice will be served, and served well, with the intentional use of these human rights instruments.

Saddam Hussein was not alone in the business of brutality and dictatorship. This is why the creation of the International Criminal Court, now functioning in The Hague, is significant: It sent a warning that impunity in the ways flaunted by the likes of Ferdinand Marcos, Idi Amin, Pol Pot or Augusto Pinochet will not be tolerated.

Dealing with the case of Saddam Hussein is a momentous task in which our sense of justice itself is on trial. Elusive as it may be, the justice we seek must be retributive, in that the offender is prosecuted and punished, even as his right to a fair trial is ensured. Justice must also be restorative, so that the victims find reparation, restitution and rehabilitation.

In the end, justice must be redemptive, and it becomes so when people and communities are empowered to deal with the truths of their past in ways that allow reconciliation and social reconstruction, thus ending cycles of violence.

We may never fully fathom how someone like Saddam Hussein could wield so much power for so long. But may it come to us in the season of advent that peace and justice will, in God's good time, embrace and fall upon us (Psalm 85:10).

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*Bautista is assistant general secretary for United Nations Ministry of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. He is based in New York City at the Church Center for the United Nations.

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