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A History of Political Trials

From Charles I to Charles Taylor

John Laughland

The modern use of international tribunals to try heads of state for genocide and crimes against humanity is often considered a positive development. Many people think that the establishment of special courts to prosecute notorious dictators represents a triumph of law over impunity. In A History of Political Trials, John Laughland takes a very different and controversial view. He shows that trials of heads of state are in fact not new, and that previous trials throughout history have themselves violated the law and due process. It is the historical account which carries the argument. By examining trials of heads of state and government throughout history – figures as different as Charles I, Louis XVI, Erich Honecker, Saddam Hussein and Charles Taylor – Laughland shows that modern trials of heads of state have ugly historical precedents. In their different ways, all the trials he describes were marked by arbitrariness and injustice, and many were gross exercises in hypocrisy. Political trials, he finds, are only the continuation of war by other means. With short and easy chapters, but the fruit of formidable erudition and wide reading, this book will force the general reader to re-examine prevailing opinions on this subject.
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18 Regime Change and the Trial of Saddam Hussein


Unlike the NATO attack on Yugoslavia in 1999, the Anglo-American attack on Iraq in 2003 was one of the most hotly contested political decisions of modern times. Inspired by the Manichaean, millenarian,1 and neo-Jacobin ideology of the neo-conservatives,2 some of whom demanded that the US pursue ‘an end to evil’ on the basis that ‘there is no middle way for Americans – it is victory or Holocaust,’3 and by the neo-Trotskyite dogma of ‘global democratic revolution’ which President George W. Bush often said was the centrepiece of his foreign policy4 (for instance, ‘The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a crushing defeat to the forces of tyranny and terror, and a watershed event in the global democratic revolution’5), the invasion of Iraq was attacked by opponents as illegal because, like the Kosovo war, it was never authorized by the United Nations Security Council. Supporters of the war, London and Washington in first place, replied that the attack was covered by existing UN Security Council resolutions. The question of the legality of the war cannot be dissociated from the question of the legality of the subsequent trial and execution of the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein.

The international system ratified after World War II in the charter of the United Nations bans the use of force in international relations (war) except when a state is acting in self-defence or when authorized by the Security Council voting under its...

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