Respecting the Human Dignity of War Criminals


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Justice can be so elusive - humanity has tinkered with its definition and implementation for thousands of years. Yet, we still don't seem to have a conclusive, universal definition that goes beyond the theoretical and is practical for everyone. While some people may 'turn the other cheek' when facing injustice, others pursue 'an eye for an eye'. In Canada, a victim will take a criminal case to the authorities and the authorities will then prosecute. In the end, we rely on an impartial jury to process the evidence objectively and provide a non-biased verdict. The justice system we are familiar with in Canada may be appropriate for the crimes commonly committed here - theft, assault, fraud, murder - but what if the individual on stand was responsible for the torture and deaths of thousands of men, women and children, and for decades of barbaric oppression of an entire nation?

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During the last decade or so, the world has witnessed several tyrants in the Middle East being overthrown and hunted by either external forces (NATO) or their own people. In most of these cases, the dictators who had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity had their lives ended in similar fashion; without legal representation, unbiased jury, or fair trial. The violent, agonizing deaths of these figures usually brought on widespread celebrations (before triggering further instability) in their respective countries and abroad. It can be hard to argue that they did not deserve to die, considering their crimes, but can we really be sure it was the 'just' thing to do?

Thumbnail image for Osama-bin-laden 01.jpgTake the case of the Al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden; an enemy to the West since the
tragic attacks on New York City and Washington in 2001. The United States
searched far and wide for this criminal with their 'War on Terror' by
destroying infrastructure, burning through trillions of tax dollars, sacrificing
many of their young men and women, and killing thousands of innocent civilians.
When US Navy SEALs found bin Laden in Pakistan, they did not arrest him and
read him his Miranda Rights; they killed him. I'm sure many survivors of the
9/11 attacks finally felt at peace, but I couldn't help but cringe when I saw
the massive, joyous celebrations being held in the United States that night[i].
They were literally celebrating the murder of another human being, a
person they had been condemning for murdering people.

The Obama Administration declared that "justice has been done"[ii], but it actually put them at the same level as bin Laden - murderers. Bringing him to trial and sentencing him to jail time probably wouldn't have been as climactic, but Americans could have held their heads high. As notable filmmaker Michael Moore put it, "the way we show the world that we're different is that we give even the most heinous person their day in court,".[iii]

380GADAFFI.jpgA similar scenario occurred in Libya, when the nation revolted against the oppressive, forty-two years of Muammar el-Gaddafi's dictatorship in early 2011.[iv] Chronicled by amateur video on YouTube, Gaddafi's death would definitely constitute as 'cruel and unusual punishment', some might even say it was barbaric, and the ICC has indicated that it may have been a war crime.[v] He was clearly unarmed and severely injured, but fighters excitedly continued their violence, possibly even sodomizing him, and he died by a gunshot wound while in custody.[vi] The display of his corpse in the days following his murder was unsettling and often accompanied by a "Graphic Content" warning when reported in Western media.

I understand that for the people who had suffered under his rule for so long, this might have been fantasized about for years and I can only write this from a third-party perspective, but that video truly disturbed me, as a human being. Yes, his crimes were atrocious and he had abused his people for almost half a century, but that doesn't suspend his human rights. Gaddafi didn't die in combat, he was alive when apprehended by rebel forces and then murdered. No matter his crimes, Gaddafi was still a human being and entitled to those universal, inalienable rights to a fair trial and to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, just as we all are as declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[vii]

mussolini alive and dead.jpgObviously this isn't the first instance of brutal dictator slaughtering - the execution and public corpse display of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini by Italian partisans in 1945 comes to mind.[viii] It's fair to say that other nations have survived and prospered afterwards, just as Italy did, but the problem is that there is no need for the global citizens of today to continue to resort to those measures. We are supposed to evolve and avoid repeating history. The UDHR was established in 1948, three years after Mussolini's execution, but 63 years before Gaddafi's. I do not condone the spirit of Gaddafi's dictatorship and his crimes, but I do not condone murdering a human being to solve the problem, when we have clear rules of law.

The methods rebel fighters used that day were excessive, to say the least, and violated several human rights that no one had the right to take away from Gaddafi. It's hard to see how a new, just Libya can arise from this act of brutal violence and in my opinion, it has already started the new Libya in the same way the old was being run. "...It will set the tone for whether the new Libya will be ruled by law or by summary violence," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North African director of Human Rights Watch.[ix]

As shocking as the images of his capture and corpse were, it also didn't come as a surprise. Of course the oppressed people would avenge their decades of suffering by executing the man responsible for it when they got the chance; which is exactly why I think it would have made a more impactful statement if Libyans had arrested Gaddafi and put him on trial for his crimes. They had the chance to establish themselves as the new Libya they had been fighting for; it would have shown a truly new era for the nation if they could overcome their anger and use the rational rule of law to bring justice for their people.

Canadians were recently put to a similar test with the case of Rwandan war criminal Léon Mugesera, who allegedly incited the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, during which time he was vice-president of an influential political party. For 16 years he has been residing in Québec City, avoiding extradition with claims that he will be tortured if he were to face criminal court in his home country. Canadian courts have postponed his deportation, though they did not have the obligation to do so, to allow for a United Nations investigation into his claims.[x] Justice may be overdue for the people of Rwanda, but I applaud Canada and the United Nations for ensuring that justice is achieved humanely by taking precautions for Mugesera.

No matter how monstrous the crimes, a person is still human. If we can't respect them as such, how can we call ourselves civilized?

a. Osama bin Laden. ABC News:

b. Muammar el-Gaddafi.

c. Benito Mussolini.,_Italien,_deutsche_Frontk%C3%A4mpfer_in_Rom_crop.jpg/250px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-2007-1022-506,_Italien,_deutsche_Frontk%C3%A4mpfer_in_Rom_crop.jpg

d. Benito Mussolini's body hung for public display.

[i] "Osama Bin Laden Dead: Huge Crowd Celebrates Outside White House," Huffington Post 02 May 2011:

[ii] Jennifer Bendery and Sam Stein, "Osama Bin Laden Dead, Obama Announces," Huffington Post 02 May 2011:

[iii] Jack Mirkinson, "Michael Moore, Elisabeth Hasselback Clash Over Bin Laden Death On 'The View'," Huffington Post 14 September 2011:

[iv] "Muammar el-Qaddafi (1942-2011)," New York Times 25 October 2011:

[v] "ICC says Muammar Gaddafi killing may be war crime," BBC News: Africa 16 December 2011:

[vi] Mark Hanrahan, "Gaddafi Sodomized? Video Shows Libyan Leader Attacked By Captors," Huffington Post 24 December 2011:

[vii] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

[viii] "1945: Italian partisans kill Mussolini," BBC ON THIS DAY 28 April 1945:

[ix] "Libya: Investigate Deaths of Gaddafi and Son: New Evidence Heightens Concerns of Summary Executions," Human Rights Watch News 22 October 2011:

[x] "Mugesera to seek leave from detention centre," Montréal Gazette 16 January 2012:

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