I didn’t think this was going to be a difficult question to answer, but it’s stumped me, so I’m asking for help.
Is there any authoritative source (for fairly low standards of “authoritative”; as the title suggests, I’m looking for something no worse than the Black Book of Communism) telling us how many people Saddam Hussein killed and when?
Ought to be a simple question to answer, isn’t. It’s important for me, because as regular readers will know, my position on the war was what I called “Anti This War Now”. Thus, I was in favour of allowing Saddam to remain in power for a short period (waiting for a coalition of people I trusted to be assembled).
Clearly, therefore, my moral culpability (and thus the extent to which I am prepared to take crap from pro-war lefties) is very heavily dependent on what might have happened in Iraq during that period of six months to a year. Would the period 2003-5 under Saddam have looked like 1943-45 under Hitler (clearly very bad) or like 1993-95 under Suharto (not very bad at all)?
The issue is this; general Google searches seem to drag up a figure of 300,000 as roughly consensus (it would make Saddam only a bit less bad than Suharto under Indonesian estimates, about half as bad under credible non-Indonesian). But I have two problems with this number:
1) It isn’t used very precisely at all; sometimes it appears to only refer to the mass graves and obviously there were many more murders.
2) It’s much too small to bear the moral weight that’s put on it. The 300,000 number includes 200,000 Kurds killed in the 1988-91 uprisings and 50,000 Shia revolutionaries killed in 1991. I do not want for one minute to minimise the enormity of this crime, nor to suggest that these peoples’ deaths did not merit punishment, but it isn’t credible to regard events which happened in 1991 to be part of the rationale for a war in 2003.
Subtracting them from the total gives a figure of 50,000 Iraqis murdered, which averages out at just over 4,000 a year between 1991 and 2003; given that many of these murders would have been committed early in the period 1991-2003, the death toll could have been as low as 2,000 a year during the period in which war was being seriously discussed. Since we might have killed as many as 10,000 Iraqis by accident during the liberation process, the numbers don’t stack up. So there must be a lot of other deaths attributable to Saddam.
In which case, it’s pretty surprising that they haven’t been better publicised. Here and the US and UK government dossiers that I managed to find. Straight away, before anything else, I have to say that, even speaking as somebody who reads a lot of Amnesty International material, the FCO dossier in particular is an utterly vile record of an extremely evil regime. Not to minimise that at all. I apologise unreservedly to anyone who thinks my approach here is callous; to be honest I cut my teeth in these matters by arguing with people over the original Black Book, and can remember being worried at the time about how desensitised I was becoming.
But in terms of actual murders carried out by Saddam’s regime, the numbers in the FCO and State Department human rights dossiers seem to more or less agree with the residual estimate I made above; extra-judicial executions and disappearances in Saddam’s Iraq were in the region 2,000 a year.
While that’s horrible, it’s not horrible by the standards of a lot of the world, including a lot of countries with whom we have decent relations. I would very much like to be able to put some definite figures to this, because at the back of my mind is preying the suspicion that the case for the unique awfulness of Saddam, as opposed to the case for his awfulness which can be taken as read, seems to be based on the conflation of very large but old atrocities with more recent but much smaller ones, with the effect of making the moral case for immediate war appear much stronger at the time than it actually was. Pointers please in the comments below; I’ll post an update in a couple of weeks’ time.
(Footnote: Here’s the context for the Clinton/Suharto photo linked above. I hope the point isn’t lost on people; there was a very strong moral case indeed for military action against Suharto’s Indonesia in 1976-77, but not much of a moral case at all twenty years later. And it’s possible to say that without for one second diminishing the moral hatred which it is correct to feel against Suharto).