THE TRIAL of Saddam Hussein will likely result in his execution. Thus satisfied will be the Greek goddess of justice. Blind, with scales in her hand, she balances evil with justice, dollar for dollar, punishment equaling debts. It was her signature principle -- retributive justice -- that animated the trials of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, and trials following war, dictatorship, and genocide in Yugoslavia, East Germany, Greece, Argentina, and Rwanda. Only retribution for the ancient regime, claim the defenders of trials, can establish the rule of law in Iraq under its new Constitution.
But trials have their limitations. Politically they often backfire. Erich Honecker, the deposed premier of communist East Germany, arrived at his trial in the newly unified Germany pumping his fist in the air, decrying victors' justice -- and became more popular for it.
Trials rarely succeed in prosecuting more than a fraction of major perpetrators, even when they are lengthy and expensive. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has spent more than $1 billion over eight years to produce 20 convictions -- out of 125,000 alleged genocidaires awaiting trial. Political pressures frequently undermine verdicts. Due process, legal procedures, and adversarial incentives often hinder the public revelation of the truth about past injustices. Under pressure for a speedy execution, Saddam's prosecutors may exclude from their case his colossal massacres of Shi'ites and Kurds, thus inhibiting their public exposure.
Most of all, trials will contribute little to the chief US foreign policy goal of a stable, democratic regime. The persistent hindrance is hatred. Historical wounds fester between Sunnis and Shi'ites, Kurds and Arabs, Islamists and secularists, and now Iraqis and Americans, breaking out in continual attack, revenge, and counter-revenge. Steps forward -- elections, rebuilt institutions, and a new Constitution -- seem constantly checked by steps backward -- assassinations, detonations, and proliferating jihadi factions.
Trials are unlikely to assuage these wounds. In fact, news reports indicate that Saddam's trial is already pitting his sympathizers against his avowed enemies -- yet another source of division.
What is needed is a dulcet in the din, a strong antidote to communal violence. Where might such medicine be found? One source of hope lies in a truth commission, a body charged by a state to investigate its past. Roughly 30 countries have turned to this solution in dealing with their own troubled histories.
Arising from the rhetoric is an ancient principle found in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures: reconciliation. Connoting the restoration of right relationship, reconciliation provides a blueprint for dealing with the past.
It begins by publicly acknowledging the suffering of thousands of victims of political violence. One of the remarkable themes to emerge from truth commissions in South Africa, Guatemala, El Salvador, and East Timor was victims finding healing through public testimony. Recent interviews with ordinary Iraqis find them welcoming just such an opportunity to speak publicly about the injustices that they and their loved ones have suffered at the hands of the state and to discover the truth about injustices that the state has hidden. The same exposure of deeds can foster accountability for perpetrators and assist trials.
Truth commissions even encourage apology and forgiveness. Following the publication of the final report of Chile's truth commission, President Patricio Aylwin called for nationwide repentance for injustices committed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Enjoined by the Koran, apology and forgiveness might also be realized in Iraq.
For entire societies, truth commissions create a public historical record. The report of Argentina's truth commission, Nunca Mas (''Never Again"), became a bestseller on the streets. Perpetrators are thereby denied the lies through which they vindicate and reempower themselves, and new regimes are founded on truth and accountability.
To realist ears, reconciliation sounds remote from the necessities of sandbags, M-16s, and barbed wire. But to sound the principle is not to expect a utopian reconciliation of all with all. It is rather to urge a set of practices that can begin to heal the social divisions that now endanger a new regime. On this logic, many Iraqis have called for a truth commission, including a broad consensus of Iraqi citizens interviewed for a report of the International Center for Transitional Justice. As history's schisms roil on, their plea emerges not merely as an alternative concept of justice but also as sound foreign policy.
Daniel Philpott is a faculty fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University.