Research News

25th anniversary of Kurdish genocide holds lessons to prevent atrocities in Syria today

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the gas attacks on the Kurdish village of Halabja, Iraq, at the hand of Saddam Hussein that killed at least 5,000 civilians. Vanderbilt University international criminal and humanitarian law expert Michael Newton says lessons learned from the Halabja attack could help the persecuted Kurds being attacked in Syria today.

Newton has worked closely with the Kurdish people for decades and helped establish the Iraqi Special Tribunal that convicted Hussein and led training in international criminal law for its judges, which he continues to do today.

He believes the legacy of the Halabja genocide, as well as the more than 50 other chemical weapons attacks against Kurdish villages and people, can be seen in the unified response of the United States and other Western countries to the reported preparations of the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons today.

Attack galvanized world attention

“The entire world learned that the costs of remaining silent are simply too ghastly to ignore.The ghosts of Halabja cry out to remind the world that as Kurds and other Syrians suffer under another repressive regime, the world must rally to their aid,” said Newton, professor of the practice of law at Vanderbilt Law School.

The United States and other countries did not immediately respond after the Halabja attack. But Newton said it “galvanized world attention on what was happening in Iraq and the terror of the Iraqi governmental regime under Saddam Hussein.”

Kurds essential to Hussein’s conviction

Newton said the Kurdish people were essential to Hussein’s conviction on war crimes because of the key evidence, witness statements and eyewitness testimony they risked their lives to gather. And this is what the Syrian Kurds must do today.

“It was the Kurds themselves that provided the record of the genocide; and I promise you, the Iraqi genocide cases could not have been prosecuted successfully without this evidence. And we must encourage the Syrian Kurds to do the same thing—to document with specificity the crimes being committed against them,” said Newton.

Mike Newton
Mike Newton (Vanderbilt University/Daniel Dubois)

Along with helping to establish the Iraqi Special Tribunal that convicted Hussein and leading the training in international criminal law for its judges, Newton served in the Office of War Crimes Issues at the U.S. Department of State and was one of two U.S. delegates who negotiated the Elements of Crimes document for the International Criminal Court. He also coordinated the interface between the FBI and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and deployed into Kosovo to do forensics fieldwork to support the Milosevic indictment.

Newton is also the co-author of Enemy of the State: The Trial and Execution of Saddam Hussein.