What to do with Saddam Hussein, who currently is held by the United States as a prisoner of war, has become a question of some urgency as the official end of the occupation of Iraq draws near on June 30. The Geneva Conventions, it seems, require the release of POWs when a war or occupation ends, unless criminal charges are brought against them.

In addition, the new Iraqi interim government has called for the United States to hand Saddam over to Iraqi custody for trial by an Iraqi Special Tribunal, created in December of last year. The Americans, however, are concerned about security and the Iraqis' ability to hang on to him. A compromise apparently has been worked out involving a paper transfer of the country's former leader to Iraq while physically he remains under American control.

Of course, with the issues of post-occupation custody and criminal charges come the questions of trial and venue. The United States agrees with the Iraqis that they should be able to try their tormentor. And on the surface that seems only just. However, there are serious questions about whether Saddam and his henchmen could receive a fair trial in Iraq, about whether security there would, in any reasonably near future, be good enough that trial judges would feel safe in rendering an objective verdict.

Also, there is a strong desire elsewhere in the world for an international dimension to the trial of Saddam. It is important, many feel, that Saddam's trial not only be thorough and fair, but that it also should serve to emphasize the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal of 1945-49. It was at Nuremberg that the Allied powers conducted the war-crimes trials of Nazi war criminals. Those trials first established the principle that genocide and other crimes against humanity could and should be punished by the world at large.

Those of us who witnessed the Nuremberg trials, as well as those who organized and participated in them, were highly conscious of the fact that history was being made. Even though those were trials of the vanquished by the victors in a brutal world war, there was, nonetheless, a sense that genocide, other crimes against humanity and aggressive war itself were in the dock. A truly historic precedent had been set among the nations of the world. And what emerged was a set of principles that held national leaders and those who do their bidding to be accountable for crimes against humanity and to face punishment by the world community. When the many crimes of that conflict were adjudicated, however, the tribunal closed up shop.

Today, the International Criminal Court, sitting in The Hague, embraces the principles of Nuremberg and would seem a fitting venue for Saddam's trial. However, it has one very serious problem. The court has no jurisdiction over crimes committed before it was created on July 1, 2002. That would mean that Saddam's most horrific crimes, including his campaigns against the Kurds (human-rights groups say as many as 300,000 might have disappeared in the 1980s and '90s) and his invasions of Iran and Kuwait, would be immune from prosecution.

But there are other means of internationalizing the trial proposed. The United Nations has, in the past, established special tribunals for such purposes for Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Cambodia. Why not for Iraq? That alternative could defuse another potential problem for internationalizing the trial -- perceptions in the Arab world that the West is trying to deny the Iraqis the justice (or revenge) they are entitled to.

But there seems to be no reason why the United Nations, the United States and Iraq could not work out a system in which the experience and expertise of the international community might be used to assist the Iraqis in conducting a genuinely fair and thorough trial. It would seem to be not only politically doable, but the best solution possible. It would recognize the legitimate claims of Iraq, defuse any sense of "Western arrogance" and reaffirm the principles of Nuremberg, as well -- an important warning to the world's would-be despots.


Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at mail@cronkitecolumn.com.

(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite

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