Truth Commission for Iraq

History is full of little ironies. Truth, too, or truths (with a lower case T), but it is the ironies that keep historians aware of how little we understand of our world, or how bizarrely we interpret it. Irony can be amusing, but not always so, because the consequences can be so far reaching. What brought this truism to mind was observing people who only a few weeks ago were ready to leave Saddam Husseinís government in place now calling for war crimes trials. In contrast, people like me, who advocated "regime change," are divided on the wisdom of such a process.

First of all, the long build-up toward war was partly directed at Iraqi generals and Baath party officials who might have overthrown the dictator and his sons. This did not happen, so we have a much larger number of criminals to deal with than might have been the case. Moreover, this left Iraqi without a functioning judicial system. Trials by the Baath party might not have been fair, but they would have been speedy and thorough.

Secondly, we do not have international consensus as to what should be done with individuals who did nothing more than kill, torture, imprison and impoverish their own people. There are too many countries represented in the United Nations where such crimes are an everyday occurrence, and too many nations willing to sacrifice morality and good sense in order to embarrass the United States.

So what to do? There are two choices: trials or a truth commission.

International trials have the advantage of preventing the chief criminals from evading prosecution. They have the disadvantage of being perceived as an American form of lynch justice (donít expect logic or fairness in this argument). More important, they are slow. The mass murderers in Rwanda are still being processed, partly because witnesses (being inconveniently dead) are hard to find. Even more importantly, we need to get Iraq back into business, and after so many years of Baath rule it is hard to find people who manage water and electricity who are not party members, much less to find experienced policemen and government officials.

We faced this same situation in Germany and Japan after World War Two, and although we attempted de-Nazification, that was not an immediate success. Trials are characterized by Not Guilty pleas and by a widespread public hope that the individuals most guilty are let off, because that would allow those who are only somewhat guilty to breathe more freely.

South Africa had a much better solution: the truth commission. Here masses of individuals were processed swiftly, publicly and without the need to impose sentences. The logic of the process encouraged confessions. Only those who lied had to fear prosecution; meanwhile, the Black population was persuaded that past crimes were being exposed, and the White population was made fully aware of what had been done in their name.

There were still a few trials, as there would be in Iraq, but the immediate effect on both local and world opinion was profound. This would be true in Iraq, two, most importantly for the so-called Arab Street, which will simply not believe anything that American and British governments say. Gavel to gavel television coverage of truth commission activities, however, would be much harder to deny.

It is easy to set up a truth commission: a mix of Iraqi exiles, clerics and former judges could supervise a public process; they are well-enough informed to know to detect the most obvious lies, and if the public can phone in tips, the supervisors can ask follow-up questions. Medium-level officials should be put through first. These are individuals who know enough to be informative, usually well-educated enough to be eloquent, and important enough to be needed back in their jobs. We should see that they are heard, "cleared", and put back to work. Then we should come home as quickly as we can.

William Urban

Lee L. Morgan Professor of History

and International Studies

Monmouth College

Peoria Journal Star, May 25, 2003, A5.