Red Cross: Release Saddam

Guardian — Red Cross ultimatum to US on Saddam

Saddam Hussein must either be released from custody by June 30 or charged if the US and the new Iraqi government are to conform to international law, the International Committee of the Red Cross said last night.

Nada Doumani, a spokeswoman for the ICRC, told the Guardian: “The United States defines Saddam Hussein as a prisoner of war. At the end of an occupation PoWs have to be released provided they have no penal charges against them.”

Her comments came as the international body, the only independent group with access to detainees in US custody, becomes increasingly concerned over the legal limbo in which thousands of people are being held in the run-up to the transfer of power at the end of the month.

The occupation officially ends on June 30 and US forces will be in Iraq at the invitation of its sovereign government.

“There are all these people kept in a legal vacuum. No one should be left not knowing their legal status. Their judicial rights must be assured,” Ms Doumani said.

Saddam and other senior officials of the old regime are the only Iraqi detainees to have been given PoW status. Hundreds of other Iraqis have been seized since the war often, according to critics, on flimsy suspicion and held for long periods without charge, usually without their families knowing for weeks where they are.

This is Exhibit A in explaining why Administration figures ignored early warnings from the ICRC about Abu Ghraib. Silliness like this is, unfortunately, far too often the forte of international human rights groups.

That said, it is rather odd that we haven’t charged Saddam with any number of crimes against humanity. Surely, Saddam’s crimes make those of Slobodan Milosovek–let alone Manuel Norieaga–seem like parking violations.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jim Henley says:

    Inspired by your previous item, I invite you to explain why the Red Cross is “silly” here. Note that the Red Cross is not saying they can’t conceive of anything Saddam could be charged with. They are simply saying that, per international law, he NEEDS to be charged with something to justify his continued detention. This is silly how, precisely?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Saddam isn’t an ordinary prisoner of war. The rules were written for soldiers who are routinely released after the cessation of hostilities. Evil dictator mass murderer types, though, tend not to be. Given that there’s no way in hell we’re going to release this guy, it’s rather silly to call for it.

    I fully expect that Saddam will be charged with something and soon. Presumably, the main holdup is figuring out the logistics–Do the Iraqis do it? Do we take him to the Hague? A US military tribunal? What? The rules really aren’t very clear.

  3. Jim Henley says:

    1. James, I would think that coming up with charges against an “evil dictator mass murderer type” would be a cinch. Also just the sort of thing you do if you’re into the whole rule of law business.

    2. “Given that there’s no way in hell we’re going to release this guy, it’s rather silly to call for it.” Ever read anything about the discipline of psychology in the 1970s-era Soviet Union? I recommend at least a cursory inquiry into the topic. The lessons of its perversion have transferrable application.

    3. If we reverse your paralogical timing issues – where what the Red Cross says this week becomes an excuse for the administration ignoring the organization last year – another interpretation suggests itself. AFTER observing how the US treats ordinary Iraqi prisoners, it decides to make an issue of its treatmetn of an extraordinary one.

    4. Of course, we can avoid a lot of logical contortion by simply admitting that the occupation won’t be ending on June 30. No muss, no fuss!

  4. mark says:

    Fine. Release him. To the Kurds.

  5. Boyd says:

    Of course, we can avoid a lot of logical contortion by simply admitting that the occupation won’t be ending on June 30.

    Despite the fact that we’d decline to leave if we were asked to do so on July 1, I think the formality of transferring sovereignty to an Iraqi government is vital to the continuing process of rebuilding Iraq, and the Iraqi government. To continue the status quo past June 30 would slow the entire train.

    That said, it seems to me the biggest problem with charging Hussein now has to do with the need for him to be charged, tried and ultimately convicted by the Iraqi government, rather than under U.S. law or some silly (yes, I said it) notion of “international law,” plus the fact that there is no formal body of laws in Iraq right now, and certainly none that would deal with the heinous crimes committed by Hussein.

    But you do present an interesting hypothesis, Jim. It’s entirely possible that the Red Cross got miffed about a lack of response to earlier, quieter issues, and decided to trumpet this one a bit more.

    In the end, though, it’s a pavane. Everyone will go through various steps merely for form’s sake, but in the end, they really won’t make much difference.

  6. James Joyner says:


    No luck finding the discipline of psychology reference.

    As Boyd notes, the problems with charging him at this juncture are manifold. Outside of international treaties and a few precedents here and there, there’s really no such thing as international law. Saddam pretty much was Iraqi law pre-bellum and there is no current Iraqi government in place. Creating ex post facto laws is obviously problematic as well.

    The ICRC statement would have been better received if they’d simply noted that, according to some precedents, Saddam needs to be charged. Adding the “or released” nonsense just strains credulity.

  7. Jim Henley says:

    Boyd, thanks for your response. Surely if we can find a venue and charges for Slobodan Milosevic – which I confess to opposing – we can find the same for Saddam. Among other things, Iraq appears to have signed the Genocide Convention (it’s not listed as a non-party.)

    James: Soviet Psychiatry in One Lesson. Political dissent was considered evidence of mental illness because the dissident could not hope to prevail against the authority of the Worker’s State. “You can’t win, so you must be crazy.” One sees the same arguments these days from drug warriors in this country. “Of course anyone who smokes marijuana has a problem. The penalties for marijuana are stiff, so anyone who risks them is ipso facto reckless and under the compulsion of the drug.”

    Your post engages in a milder form of the same logic. (You didn’t actually lock up or drug anyone, which is surely to your credit.) Since the US won’t listen, THERE MUST BE something wrong with the Red Cross for insisting on speaking. This would be as true if, say, the Red Cross lodged complaints with the ruling junta of Myanmar or Robert Mugabe’s regime. We ain’t budging, so don’t be silly buggers, they could say.

  8. James Joyner says:


    I’m rather leery of the “charge the defeated head of state” thing myself. I’m not sure what Milosovek did constituted crimes against humanity in any normal sense. Indeed, I’ve argued, only slightly tongue in cheek, that he was a Baltic Abraham Lincoln, trying to preserve the Yugoslav Union by any means necessary. Saddam’s case doesn’t trouble me much since he violated the terms of the 1991 Gulf War cease fire and over a dozen UN Security Council resolutions, not to mention some fairly large scale pogroms against his own people and war crimes against Iran.

    I know ICRC, and even Amnesty International, do good work. The problem is that they obscure much of it by making moral equivalency arguments equating Mugrabe with George Bush because, after all, we have the death penalty, too. Please.

    It’s very much the Boy Who Cried Wolf. If they had more credibility going in, we’d have taken them more seriously on the prison reports.

    There is little precedent for the current situation in Iraq. The government is in a three phase transition and, rather obviously, Saddam has to be kept in custody until we figure out the logistics of the trial, including 1) who is in charge of the proceedings and 2) is the death penalty in play. So far as I know, we’re treating him scrupulously well under the Geneva Conventions. Surely, he’ll get a trial soon enough.