Senior US officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have recently suggested that Saddam Hussein and his top henchmen might be given an amnesty for their past crimes in exchange for leaving Iraq and averting war. Is such an amnesty a good idea? How should it be judged by those attempting to end the practice of exempting from punishment government officials guilty of monstrous crimes?
These are weighty questions. In trying to answer them, two considerations seem fundamental. First, one should consider the severity of the crimes committed by those who would escape punishment. Second, we should consider how much death and suffering would be avoided by letting such a ruler and his henchmen go free. A third factor that should also be taken into account is what damage would be done to the emerging international legal system for ending the impunity long enjoyed by state officials who use their power to commit atrocities.
As for the severity of Saddam Hussein's criminal behavior, there is probably no official now in power anywhere in the world with as much blood on his hands. An incomplete list of his crimes includes:
using chemical weapons against Iranian troops during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that he started in 1980;