This post is part of a symposium on Ayça Çubukçu’s book For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). All contributions to the symposium can be found here.
For the Love of Humanity tells the story of the global anti-war movement’s efforts to put the United States, the United Kingdom, and their allies on trial for crimes committed during the invasion and occupation of Iraq. It is an intensely creative and also a vexing book. How it troubles both academic genres and political assumptions is among its great strengths. The book weaves together political philosophy and ethnography to relay to readers the story of a group of imaginative people who were trying to think beyond the nation-state system, beyond its laws and wars, as they condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq and challenged the liberal humanitarian claims that were propagated to justify it. If official institutions of international law failed to act, they declared, then global civil society had the right and the duty to form its own tribunal to disseminate the truth about the Iraq War.
In this telling, we are asked to pause and consider how progressive the cosmopolitan promotion of a “global rule of law” really is. The reader must come to this text with the open mind of an ethnographer, just as Ayça Çubukçu came to her work within the World Tribunal for Iraq to consider “What is the difference, if any, between cosmopolitan and imperial arguments supporting military intervention to defend humanity?” That Çubukçu writes in a way that imposes no answers, but invites the reader to consider these hard questions, is part of what makes the text challenging.
Participants in the Tribunal “had the audacity to question the authority of international law and its compromised institutions,” as Çubukçu writes, and they grappled with rethinking the meaning of sovereignty, intervention, and rights beyond a state-centric, top-down framework of political action (160). How to think beyond these hegemonic liberal political forms and still communicate their critiques in terms that would be credible to western publics was a perduring problem for the Tribunal activists. As we read about their critical and careful discussions, it becomes clear that the language of international law has become so ingrained within our political imagination globally that thinking beyond its moral precepts and mechanisms of truth-claiming is almost impossible. For the Love of Humanity draws us into these conundrums and the world of the Tribunal activists who sought, somehow practically, to address them. In the end, however, it seems that the nation-state framework and liberal humanitarian ethos that has defined cosmopolitan political action for at least a century, remained paramount.
The fact that the language of humanitarianism and human rights could help justify a war in Iraq that has left that country devastated—this is what compelled a rethinking of international law and the human rights system. It forced the activists of the Tribunal to struggle with the question of whether international law is necessarily a tool of imperialism or if it can be a means of resistance to it. We don’t have to look far for evidence of the former: A standard critique of international law is that it is used to legitimate state policy more than it actually limits state behavior or curbs state violence. Whether international law could be a tool of resistance is one of the problems Çubukçu and the Tribunal participants argued about, but never reached consensus over.
The book explores a corollary concern: What are the legitimate bases upon which any group of people can engage in supporting human rights? In other words, who has the “responsibility to protect,” and under what conditions? A seeming paradox of the humanitarian imagination is the fact that violence has come to be seen as an acceptable way to carry out the humanitarian mission. “Military humanitarianism,” codified in the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine endorsed by UN Member States in 2005, declares that the international community should act decisively—including through the use of force—to halt mass atrocities. Raised to a maxim with global weight, R2P holds that state sovereignty is not absolute and must be tempered by the international community, acting through the UN Security Council. According to this doctrine, it is the responsibility of governments to respect the rights and well-being of all peoples residing within their territory. Where a state fails to respect those rights the international community has a responsibility to step in by various means, including military action, to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. As Çubukçu’s account shows, the R2P doctrine takes a whole new meaning when self-styled global citizens take their own responsibilities seriously. Under debate as these cosmopolitan actors strategized their political interventions was the question of what actions can be undertaken for “the liberation of a brutalized population from a barbaric regime”—as Habermas described the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein.
Even if there are no definitive answers provided in the book, the questions are critical: Who has the “responsibility to protect”? Or, put more simply, when can “we” try to help “them”? Does the “we—them—help” triangle always and necessarily partake in systems of domination? These are questions about the bases of acting in solidarity, and as they are posed in this book they prompt critical thought beyond the standard approaches to international law. For the Love of Humanity disrupts any assumptions about the benevolence of human rights in ways that are different from the typical leftist accounts that criticize human rights and humanitarianism as they are instrumentalized by governments to intervene in other countries. The issue is not just the imperial foundations of international law, but the imperial foundations of doing good for others “in the name of humanity” generally, by anyone. Çubukçu moves beyond the critique of powerful governments to consider when anyone, like the cosmopolitan citizens of the World Tribunal, can act on behalf of people they saw were being wronged.
One possible answer that did not seem to be discussed much by the World Tribunal is: “when you will be affected by these benevolent actions in the same ways as those on whose behalf you are acting. When you all really have the same things at stake.” The apparent lack of thinking about solidarity in terms of shared outcomes, beyond the nice sounding and no doubt sincere belief that their caring humanness was justification for their opinions and actions, exposed “the limit between the universality of principles posed within the horizon of humanity” (18). As Ayça Çubukçu writes, “This predicament, I am led to conclude, is symptomatic of a certain politics of human rights that consistently—and violently—asserts the universal rights and responsibilities of humanity over the particularly constituted rights and autonomy of a citizenry” (80). Although she is referring to the approach of western-based international human rights organizations, the critique might apply to the global citizens of the Tribunal, too. This prompts yet another unanswered question about whether cosmopolitan action on behalf of others in the name of humanity, and any invocation of universal human rights, necessarily will impinge on the autonomy, agency, sovereignty, or will of those others. Is there really no scope within a humanist or human rights frame for acting in concert across national lines?
Another possible answer to the question of how to devise egalitarian forms of solidarity and when to engage in it would be “when you’re invited.” Throughout my reading of Çubukçu’s text, I wanted to know more about what the Iraqis living with the effects of Saddam Hussein, the war, and the American occupation thought about all this. To what extent did the Tribunal speak with and to the concerns of the Iraqis who did not only live through the war, but also lived in Iraq before the war? This is an important thing to consider, because many Iraqis initially supported a foreign intervention. They felt that they were under siege during Saddam’s regime, and I wondered why this was not more central to the Tribunal discussions. Readers of this book are left wondering if the Tribunal participants’ “love of humanity” and universalizing perspective allowed them to avoid grappling with the perhaps most difficult question of what happens when the targets of our solidarity efforts have a different political opinion.
Finally, to conclude, I want to draw attention to the three investigative tasks the Tribunal set for itself: One, to investigate the crimes committed by the U.S. government in launching the Iraq war; two, to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity; and three, to consider the broader context and consequences of the doctrines of “pre-emptive war” and “preventive war” (162–63).
I’d like to pause on this impulse to investigate. Investigative commissions and fact-finding missions have become a reflex reaction of the international community in recent years. In the Middle East currently the UN has investigative commissions running in Syria, Palestine, and Yemen. Such commissions have been set up beyond that troubled region, too, finding evidence of human rights abuses and documenting violations of humanitarian law in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Sri Lanka, Burundi, and in Libya. The commission for Myanmar examining the Rohingya crisis recently issued their report, defining that violence as genocide. In general, these commissions try to remind the powers that be that they have signed on to agreements such as the Geneva Conventions, which are supposed to help protect civilians during armed conflicts and put boundaries on what is acceptable use of force. So these investigations find evidence of the violation of these agreements, and reassert those agreements through their reports and public statements.
But the siege on Gaza continues. And after seventeen UN reports on Syria, there are still some 5.5 million refugees and 6.5 million internally displaced people. In August, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen rejected the UN’s so-called “Eminent Investigators’” report, which indicated that some of the coalition’s attacks may amount to war crimes. This is the coalition that has received logistical and intelligence support from the United States, France, and the UK. This begs the question: what are investigations for?
My question more fundamentally is, “what, really, are the effects of facts?” In a world of non-representative governments and imploding and exploding nation-states, what is the power of factual knowledge about political events today? The World Tribunal tried “to inform the public about the crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes during the occupation, about the real goals behind this war and the dangers of this War logic for world peace.” The UN has documented the widespread torture and killing of prisoners in Syrian government detention, and the ICRC and MSF have documented hundreds of attacks on health facilities in that country. But until we, the people, can impose meaningful accountability and prevention, these international bodies may only offer more facts and findings for posterity.
I look forward to Ayça Çubukçu’s sequel to this book, to help us understand the effects of the Tribunal’s incredible experiment, and trace where their facts did or did not lead them and the rest of the world.