Defining Justice

By Dave Johns

Whose justice?

Palace behind gate

In 1917, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson addressed the Congress before the start of the Great War: “We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of civilized states.” In today’s era of globalization, Wilson’s sentiment is on the rise. The Iraqi tribunal faces the daunting task of presiding over the highest–profile criminal case in recent memory and of proving to its constituencies that its judgments are fair.

Who must the tribunal attempt to satisfy?

According to the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), there are three basic groups to whom the tribunal must prove its legitimacy as an independent and impartial judiciary and show that justice can be served: (1) the people of Iraq; (2) the general public in the wider Middle East; and (3) the international community. In Iraq, people are generally optimistic that justice will be done. And across the Middle East, the tribunal represents an unprecedented effort to bring powerful regional criminals to justice. Because of widespread opposition in the Arab world to the Iraq war and the U.S. occupation, it’s imperative that the court show its independence from U.S. policies. Meanwhile, the international community, which created the legal framework for the tribunal, looks on. The ICTJ recommends that the United Nations be brought back into the fold so that the tribunal can benefit from international expertise.

Will the tribunal succeed in doing justice?

It’s hard to say. According to University of Chicago Law Professor Eric Posner, “The trial of Saddam Hussein will have the same structure as a certain type of detective novel: We know who did it, and we know how it will all end; the only mystery is how we will get there.” The process of how we get there, when carefully and skillfully executed, is what we define as justice. It’s often a protracted and miserable experience, and it’s unfortunate that even the fairest process can never adequately punish or compensate for the losses involved in the most heinous of human crimes. As Hannah Arendt, the 20th–century philosopher and political theorist who covered the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, wrote, “Totalitarian regimes have discovered without knowing it that there are crimes which men can neither punish nor forgive. When the impossible was made possible, it became the unpunishable, unforgivable absolute evil which ... anger could not revenge, [and] love could not endure.”

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