Michael Newton, Leading Genocide Expert, Discusses The Trials of Saddam Hussein at Stanford Law School

On April 23, Vanderbilt law professor and leading expert on the Kurdish genocide Michael Newton came to Stanford to present “The Iraq Genocide: Al-Anfal. Personal Perspectives and Legal Residue.” The event, co-sponsored by the Muslim Students Awareness Network (MSAN), International Law Society, Department of International Relations, and Physicians for Human Rights, focused on the trial against those involved in Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign that led to the deaths of as many as 100,000 Kurds. Newton discussed the challenges he faced as an active international law advisor to the Iraqi High Tribunal during the trials of, among others, Saddam Hussein and Chemical Ali. Ali and two others were convicted on June, 2007 to death by hanging for genocide. Charges against Hussein were dropped, as he had already been hanged on December, 2006 for his crimes against humanity in Dujail

Newton, who was in Northern Iraq in the 1980s when the Kurds were fleeing to the mountains, presented some of the 9,312 pages of evidence of the Anfal atrocities used during the trial. The most shocking of these were the satellite images of villages prior to and after their destruction, adding that the evidence proved that over 2,000 villages were bulldozed.

In a very emotional moment, Newton specified how the Anfal campaign worked. Troops would come into Kurdish homes and tell them they had 30 minutes to prepare because the military was going to take them elsewhere. He added that often, parents would tell their kids to go get some keepsake to remind them of their culture because they probably would not be returning. Finally, he applauded the “so many Kurds who sacrificed incredible amounts to document this range of atrocities… on the pain of death.”

Newton then shifted his focus to the legal aspects of the trial. He began by explaining the difficulty of proving that a certain atrocity was genocide, as it meant that a specific group of people had to be destroyed in whole or in part solely because of their ethnicity. He said that the International Criminal Court (ICC) made proving genocide almost impossible as genocide had to be the only plausible intent and it had to be proven only with circumstantial evidence. Therefore, in Anfal, since the defendants claimed their real motive was to defeat the Iranians in Northern Iraq in the context of the Iran-Iraq War, the ICC did not charge them with genocide. However, Newton concluded, “Does anyone doubt there was genocidal intent against the Kurds here? Not at all.”

Throughout the evening, Newton constantly mentioned the related Dujail trial that preceded the Anfal trial. The Dujail trial was where Saddam Hussein was ultimately sentenced to death. In this case, Hussein was convicted of bulldozing this prosperous town, leading to the deaths of about 150 Kurds and the destruction of their homes and culture. While Dujail was a major atrocity, it was relatively insignificant compared to the over 2000 villages destroyed during the Anfal campaign.

Newton rigorously defended the legitimacy of the Dujail trial against Saddam Hussein, which many believe was unfair. He argued, “Don’t [let] anybody ever downplay, disregard the professionalism of the Iraqi judicial system or the Iraqi judiciary because if you do, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” In emphasizing the independence of the Iraqi judiciary, “if the Americans were in charge, the technology would have worked the first day of the trial. I assure you Iraqis did control that court”. He also said Anfal and Dujail trials were not victor’s justice. “We insist, we coach, we mentor we beg, we plead and then they do it their way.”

Although Newton was constantly answering the audience’s questions throughout the talk, toward the end he received queries on other contemporary issues. When asked whether there should be a similar trial for Israeli leaders for war crimes in Lebanon, he answered, “I am not so quickly from my experience to just automatically call them war crimes, we don’t know all the facts yet.” The same person asked whether Bush officials should be tried for war crimes in Iraq. Once again, he said there was not enough evidence. “I am not just going to concede that there were mass war crimes in Iraq by American forces. There have been some and they have been investigated and prosecuted. You can’t make that leap that something bad happens on the ground and you’re responsible.” He then dubbed the media as “unprofessional” for often jumping to conclusions like these.

Finally, when asked whether the U.S. could be tried for supplying weapons to Saddam Hussein during the 80s, he said that under international law the U.S. could in no way be held liable. In fact, he said that the U.S. gave these weapons to fight Iran and not the Kurds, and that the U.S. supported UN sanctions against Iraq for the misuse of these weapons. He added that the only other option the U.S. had left to remedy the situation was to invade Iraq.

CORRECTION: the print version of the article, and web version until 5/6/09 omitted MSAN, Department of International Relations, and Physicians for Human Rights as co-sponsors of the event.

Subscribe to the Stanford Review