Many of history’s most evil rulers have died peacefully in their beds. But tyranny is becoming a more risky occupation — witness Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who was yesterday sentenced to death by hanging.

There’s no question that Saddam deserves to die. And if he were an active inspiration for the Iraqi insurgency, then his permanent removal might make sense – as it did, for example, for Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. But there seems little evidence for that; if anything, he might be more useful to the insurgents as a martyr.

John Howard maintained this morning that Saddam’s trial was “a sign of democratic hope”. But when it comes to the death penalty, the reverse is true. Limitation and abolition of the death penalty has been a sign of democratic process throughout the world for more than 200 years. The willingness of Howard and his US counterparts to approve it is a further sign of their willingness to turn back the clock on enlightenment values.

Like so many other countries emerging from tyranny, Iraq abolished the death penalty after the fall of Saddam – only to reinstate it later. The first executions took place two months ago, and as the country descends deeper into violence there will no doubt be more to come. But just as the evidence fails to support capital punishment as a deterrent for ordinary crime, there is no reason to think it will be an effective counter to insurgency and civil war. More likely it will just contribute to what already looks like a downward spiral of barbarism.

Saddam’s victims will not see it in these terms, but it may be that a conspicuous gesture of mercy to the fallen tyrant would have given his troubled country more reason for hope.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey