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The ethics of executing Saddam
How do opponents of the death penalty reconcile their beliefs with the need for Saddam Hussein to face justice in an Iraqi court? Philosopher Julian Baggini looks at some of the ethical dilemmas.

The UN is against it. The UK refuses to extradite prisoners to countries where they may face it. Amnesty International calls it "the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment".

Kofi Annan and Tony Blair
Yet there is a real possibility that within 12 months, Saddam Hussein will face the death penalty in Iraq.

And with George W Bush making his support of the sentence public, the odds of it happening have just risen.

This is grist to the mill of those who doubt the sincerity of Tony Blair's emphasis on "the moral case for removing Saddam".

Where is the morality in allowing this barbaric form of punishment?

Cynical pragmatism?

In fact, if Saddam does end up being sentenced to death by his own people, it is far from obvious that Mr Blair's government will be morally culpable.

Saddam Hussein
An Iraqi court could decide Saddam's fate
Mr Blair cannot ignore the problems that trying to prevent such a penalty being imposed would present.

There is a country to rebuild and a region to stabilise.

If being seen to interfere too much with Iraqi justice jeopardises the chances of overall success in Iraq, he may have to allow an immoral punishment to be meted out.

That might sound more like cynical pragmatism than ethics, but in the political realm the two cannot be easily disentangled.

Back in the 1970s, leading moral philosophers such as Michael Waltzer and Bernard Williams devoted many pages to the ethics of "dirty hands".

Moral problems

Politics sometimes requires actions to be taken for the greater good which, if considered in isolation, would be judged morally wrong, Waltzer and Williams argued.

Moral problems confront politicians all the time, but as Williams put it: "We may want - we may morally want - politicians who on some occasions ignore those problems."

In this case, assuming capital punishment is wrong, it may be morally necessary as well as politically expedient to allow that wrongdoing to go ahead, in order to prevent greater harm being caused by the perception of Iraq's autonomy being denied.

The most pressing moral and political need is for Saddam to receive a trial that is fair and seen to be fair
Arguably, politicians are sometimes morally obliged to put the greater good before the interests of individuals.

Many of those who claim this is not consistent with the UK's policy on capital punishment could be accused of inconsistency themselves.

It is perhaps ironic that many of those now calling on the US and Britain to intervene to prevent the "barbaric" killing of a despot are precisely those who argued the coalition should not have intervened to end the systemic barbarism of his regime.

Extradition policy

In any case, it is not at all clear that Britain would be guilty of any inconsistency.

Human rights campaigners Amnesty count 112 countries which have, in law or practice, abolished the death penalty and 81 countries which retain it.

Among those 81 are Bahamas, Ethiopia, India, Jamaica, Japan and South Korea.

These are not pariah states by any means and the UK government leaves them alone to dispense justice as they see fit. Why should it act any differently in Iraq?

Indeed, many who are against another country with capital punishment, the US, actively support two governments which retain the sanction themselves: Cuba and the Palestinian Authority.

The only ways in which Britain interferes with other countries' implementation of the death penalty is by refusing to extradite prisoners to such countries for potential capital offences or by petitioning on behalf of British nationals on death row.

Saddam's guilt

Since Saddam is neither a UK passport holder nor resident in Britain, these measures are not applicable.

US President George W Bush
Mr Bush is a supporter of the death penalty
All of this assumes that the death penalty is wrong.

Yet even opponents of capital punishment - of which I count myself - cannot claim that its immorality is beyond dispute.

Indeed, one of the most popular reasons for opposing it as a policy is, as Amnesty puts is, that it is "irrevocable and can be inflicted on the innocent".

But Saddam's guilt is hardly in question.

Even if other reason lead us to conclude the penalty is still wrong, the idea that the execution of Saddam is a wrong so grievous that it justifies interference in the judicial processes of another state is highly questionable.

Fair trial

The most pressing moral and political need is for Saddam to receive a trial that is fair and seen to be fair.

If that results in his execution, there are moral as well as pragmatic reasons for Mr Blair to oppose that sentence, perhaps very strongly indeed.

But there are other moral reasons why that opposition should not extend to acting to prevent the sentence being passed or carried out.

As opponents of the war have pointed out, the fact that a wrong is being committed does not necessarily mean it is right to intervene to prevent it.

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine.


Here is a selection of your views:

There is an underlying assumption about the death penalty that I have never heard anyone address: that death is the worst thing that can happen to someone. I'm not so sure that can be said with absolute certainty. People often give their lives for a cause - whether it be a good cause like jumping on a grenade to save the lives of their fellow soldiers, or a bad cause like the suicide bombers. A staged execution where he can die like a martyr for the whole world to see; or a lifetime of living in a cage, alone, with no-one to bully - which one do you suppose would be worse to a man like Saddam Hussein? In this case, I think life in prison would be the more cruel punishment.
James Allison, USA

I think it has to be up to Iraqis to try to and sentence Saddam. If they choose to use the death penalty, then we have to respect their decision. It's a sovereign culture very different to ours after all. I don't think we have the right to pressure them into applying our own set of ideals, and think it would be a mistake to try.
Ewen, UK

The Anglo-American attack on Iraq, without declaration of war or convincing motive, also led to the deaths of thousands of innocent Iraqis. The heads of government responsible should therefore be placed before an Iraqi court and tried on exactly the same basis and to the same legal standards as the ex-head of government of Iraq.
Augustin, Switzerland

As an American I feel we have as much say in what happens to Saddam as Iraq. President Bush and Prime Minister Blair have made the right decisions during this conflict. However, I do not agree with Bush's statement on the death penalty. I don't believe in the death penalty at all and I have always been ashamed of my country that we have it. It won't bring back all the people Saddam has killed by executing him.
Ronda Avent, USA

We cannot allow images of a sad, tired looking old man to erase the pictures of suffering and carnage he caused. That he may be allowed to rise again - or to encourage others to take over his reign of evil - is too terrifying to think about. He must be tried and given the necessary punishment in his own country.
Mel, UK

As an Iraqi, I see the debate about sentencing Saddam Hussein quite astonishing. I, too, am against the death penalty and believe that life should mean life i.e. a convicted murderer should finish his life in prison. However, exceptions must be made in the case of Iraq. Saddam's guilt is beyond question and the crimes against humanity and the environment that Saddam has committed are on an historic scale and span 40 years. Sentencing him to be locked up in cell with access to TV, books, medical care, visitations, lawyers will be the greatest injustice to the millions of victims dead and alive.
Lateef, Ireland/Iraq

There is an interesting double standard here: Saddam Hussein gets a trial in Iraq. Meanwhile in Guantanamo Bay...? If ever there was a case of one rule for the rich and powerful and one for the foot soldiers of war, this is it.
Adam Edwards, UK

Britain made its first mistake when it decided to join the Americans in the war. Its second mistake would be to do the same by not publicly and strongly opposing the death penalty. Whether the death penalty is right or wrong does not depend on the circumstances or individual concerned, it is plainly wrong and not the action of a civilised society.
Stephen, Guildford, UK

if a state is to be organised according to the rule of law and justice, according to human rights, then the death penalty is not an option. The state would lower itself to the level of the murderer it is judging - a state of affairs which is quite untenable.
Douglas Fear, Germany

I write to a prisoner on death row in the USA and I have found that many of them long for death after being subjected to many years of imprisonment, knowing that eventually they will be killed anyway. I find it disgusting and it's hard to believe that any human being can kill another in the name of justice. So it worried me when I remembered that Iraq still has the death penalty. However I don't feel we can interfere in another country's morals and laws, so if that is their way we should allow them to try Hussein as they see fit. My worry now is that they will have a public hanging, which might satisfy the people of Iraq but which would be a horrific spectacle on the world stage.
Flash Wilson, UK

"As an American I feel we have as much say in what happens to Saddam as Iraq." No Ronda, and no again. In this way then, as an Englishman I feel we have the right, as we founded your country in the first place, to have a complete say in how your entire country is run. perhaps you do not like the idea of that as much as Iraqi people feel the need to run their own affairs.
Dave, UK

State-sanctioned murder undermines the moral argument that killing another person is the most heinous, unjustifiable thing a person can do. The last thing Iraq needs is another dead body, and the last thing the Middle East needs is another martyr.
Daniel, UK

In saying that "Saddam's guilt is hardly in question" does rather pre-judge a "fair" trial. Although it may seem obvious to all that Saddam is guilty, does the author of this article think it is ok to assume that he is guilty before he is tried, and that in some way this means that there is no risk of capital punishment being handed out unfairly?
Jon, UK

What would be achieved by executing Saddam rather than imprisoning him? The now familiar images of a ragged, tired, old man only show him as a figure of the past - he has little support and therefore poses no danger to the future of Iraq. Execution therefore serves no purpose other than revenge - not justice. Leave him to rot in prison and contemplate his deeds...
Simon Greenaway, UK

The death penalty isn't barbaric just because some people say it is. Others who are equally entitled to a view see it as a perfectly appropriate form of justice, and for many it is divinely ordained.
Julian, UK

It is not quite true to say that Britain does not interfere with other countries' implementation of the death penalty for capital offences. The British Privy Council is the final appellate court for many Caribbean Countries, and invariably they always reverse the decision to execute.
Sanderson Rowe, Barbados

To Augustin: For goodness sake get back to planet Earth where the intervention of a coalition of far more than just the US & UK have actually stopped this evil man torturing and killing hundreds of thousands of his own people... many, many times more than were killed during the war. Unlike Saddam, the coalition never targeted innocent civilians deliberately although admittedly many were killed and injured but your logic would have that man still in power continuing his evil deeds.
John Cahill, UK

If this is philosophy then I'm Socrates. What is humanity and ethics if at the end of the day it all comes down to expediency. Once upon a time politicians had principles they stood by. I am tired of reading justifications for Tony Blairs disturbing hand washing exercise in relation to the use of the death penalty against Saddam.
Jeremy Ryan, Ireland

Mr Baggini's article is sober and well balanced. Although the UK will wish to oppose the death penalty in this case, that doesn't give us grounds for intervening in a way that could destabilise Iraq. After all, even on a best case scenario, the justice that Saddam will face in any human court can only be provisional and approximate. There's no court on earth that could provide full or proportionate justice for the crimes he has committed. That will have to wait until Saddam stands before God.
Rick, UK

Mr Bush should be very wary about making comments suggesting that Hussein face the death penalty - Saddam Hussein has neither been tried nor convicted. We should be debating where to try him - The Hague in my opinion - rather than the sentence he will receive. Public advocation of a death sentence by influential heads of state could make a fair trial impossible, something which - despite what he has or has not done to others - he is entitled to.
Gary, UK

As a firm believer in the death penalty, I can think of no one more deserving than Saddam Hussein. I find the European left's sudden concern for his "fair" trial a slap in the face to the families of those who faced brutal, torturous death and mass burial at the hands of this evil tyrant. If Europe had been so concerned about fair trials, where were the Trafalgar Square marches bemoaning Saddam's justice system? I guess you were more concerned with your simple and ignorant attacks on the US and Bush. If Europe displayed less hypocrisy and moral relativism, it might have not been left with the appearance of irrelevance in the eyes of America.
Arthur, USA

Since Saddam failed to use his pistol to dispatch himself as he easily could have, one assumes he fears death and would prefer humiliation and captivity. He may feel as a prisoner he would enjoy some form of morbid celebrity like Charles Manson. He would probably be right. EU and UN whining aside, Saddam deserves that which he fears the most and delighted in inflicting on others: Death.
John, USA

So, now Iraq is a sovereign nation? When people say "let the Iraqis to decide about the punishment of Saddam..." I wonder... which Iraqis? Iraqis don't have a representative government, they have a board of Iraqis that follows the politics of the occupants.
Paul, France

Arthur, USA: if you're so convinced of the facts of the case, why are you foaming at the mouth about a "fair" trial? After a manifestly fair trial, and justice administered according to the social conventions of Iraq, Iraqis can have closure. But the fair trial element of this process is not optional. It marks a clear line to be crossed in the growth of the new Iraqi nation. Without it, all we have is savagery and vengeance.
Andy, UK

To Rick: I'm sorry to but in here, but in case you haven't noticed, Iraq is not the most stable place at the moment. Even with Saddam removed from power (because you just know he was coordinating all those attacks against the coalition from that hole) the area is still rife with conflict, much of it targeted against coalition troops. President Bush has today shown his true colours, and they are not of the red, white, and blue that so many Americans love, support, and die for. Today our president addressed the nation as a bloodthirsty savage who is little better than the man he is condemning to death.
James Anthony, USA

As an Iraqi, and someone who always wanted the capture of Saddam, I for one do not agree with the death penalty. He is a tyrant, yes, he murdered millions of my people, yes, but he does not deserve to be seen as a martyr. He deserves to stay in a cell, with minimal light, no freedom, no luxuries, just a small cell, and be left there and giving him duties like cleaning chores, something degrading. I want him to live to hear how our Iraq not his Iraq, will flourish without him.
Mina, UK/IRAQ

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