Two current
events have drawn attention, yet again, to the issue of capital
punishment – a debate that some thought was over more than 20 years
ago. First, the opening of Saddam Hussein’s trial in Iraq, and second,
the threatened execution of Australian Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore.

will respond that capital punishment is always unjustified, in which
case there is no further argument. Others (myself included) will be
less absolutist, but still insist that only an immediate and
overwhelming danger can justify it. The execution of Romanian dictator
Nicolae Ceaucescu in 1989 probably met the test. The case of Saddam
Hussein probably doesn’t.

But leaving aside the moral argument,
what about the practical effect? Will Iraq become a safer place if
Saddam is executed? Isn’t it likely that his “martyrdom” will instead
give fresh impetus to the resistance? No doubt the threat of trial and
punishment is important as a deterrent to other dictators, but it’s not
clear that the prospect of execution adds anything to the life
imprisonment already faced by the likes of Slobodan Milosevic.

trial has been compared to that of Charles the First in 1649 (partly
thanks to the appearance of a new book on the subject by Geoffrey
Robertson), and it’s not a bad analogy. The king was a tyrant and
public enemy; like Saddam, there’s no doubt that his death was
well-deserved. But it was a public relations disaster, and in pragmatic
terms it probably hurt the English republic more than it helped.

case in Singapore has no such moral ambiguity: it’s judicial murder,
pure and simple, with a young Australian facing death for no more than
the moral equivalent of running a Dan Murphy’s franchise. But
Singapore’s rulers are seen to be on “our side,” so the chance of them
ever being in Saddam’s position and facing retribution for their
actions is slim indeed.