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.
When Bertrand Russell organized an International War Crimes Tribunal in 1966 to investigate and condemn United States imperialism in Vietnam, the institutional form chosen was highly original. Backed by no state and unable to compel individuals to stand accused or to impose sanctions, the tribunal would nonetheless use the model of a criminal prosecution to “record the truth in Vietnam” and, in so doing, catalyze opposition to the war. Today, there is little novel about peoples’ tribunals, as common now as the wars on which they seek to pass judgment. Nor are they limited to war. Indonesian politicide, Turkish violence against the Kurds, the extractive industry in Latin America and South Africa, ecocide: all have been the foci of tribunals in recent years. The most significant such undertaking this century, however, remains the World Tribunal on Iraq. Like the Russell Tribunal before it, the Iraq Tribunal collected a unique catalogue of atrocity, from the use of torture, to the effects of cluster bombs and depleted uranium, to the ecological impact of U.S. and British adventurism. Yet the Iraq Tribunal was also distinct: whereas its antecedent was the creation of a handful of prominent intellectuals, most notably Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, the Iraq Tribunal was an altogether different creature, the product, as Ayça Çubukçu shows in For the Love of Humanity, of a global network of anti-war activists with a diverse range of political priorities and commitments. At once engaging ethnography and careful meditation on the politics of internationalism, Çubukçu’s book offers an intimate, if critical, assessment of the praxis of transnational solidarity.
The book is especially valuable in drawing out a tension at the heart of the endeavor, that between the “legalist and political imaginaries that animate rival visions of global peace and justice.” Even the tribunal’s fundamental purpose could not be agreed. For some, the “principal objective” was “telling and disseminating the truth about the Iraq War.” For others, the endeavor would necessarily go further, not merely educating and arousing opposition through a careful accounting of atrocity, but invoking and using the language of international law. The tribunal’s very legitimacy, these legalists insisted, would come from its foundation in law. For this faction, international law, Çubukçu, shows, was to be “the sole mother tongue of the nascent [tribunal], whereby the tribunal would not only express, but also perceive ‘facts’ through categories of international law.” A gulf emerged, then, between those who understood the tribunal to be essentially a legal institution—“not just . . . a political campaign”—bound by law and adherence to established legal procedures, and those for whom international law was of only secondary importance. For the critical reader, the former group’s insistence on formal legality is somewhat perplexing. Its uncritical acceptance of the legitimacy and apolitical nature of international law seems quaint if not naïve, not least in light of international law’s own complicity in the very invasion and occupation at issue. Would not the tribunal simply valorize international law, encouraging faith in an institution that has historically served to legitimate oppression and justify violence? Çubukçu, juggling her dual roles as participant activist and disinterested ethnographer, is unfailingly balanced in her descriptions of these debates amongst organizers, at times frustratingly so.
Of course, the tension between the legal and political is hardly unique to the Iraq Tribunal. One finds the very same tension animating debates in the 1960s around the Russell Tribunal. That tribunal, Russell proclaimed, would provide “the most exhaustive portrayal of what has happened to the people of Vietnam. We intend that the peoples of the world shall be aroused as never before, the better to prevent the repetition of this tragedy elsewhere.” Russell hoped to arouse anger in the West and galvanize opposition to the war. Sartre, by way of contrast, was far more concerned that the tribunal should operate specifically on the terrain of international law. As he told Le Nouvel Observateur in 1966, “there is no question of judging whether American policy in Vietnam is evil. . . . Most of us have not the slightest doubt.” For Sartre, the task of the Tribunal was narrower: to determine the legality of that policy and its concomitant actions—did they fall, specifically, “within the compass of international law on war crimes”? In fairness to Sartre, his was not an abstract attachment to legality. Rather, he felt the invocation of law important in arousing opposition to the war amongst the “petit bourgeois masses” who would otherwise be indifferent to U.S. imperialism: “it is by means of legalism,” he insisted, “that their eyes can be opened.”
If international law was to be the standard against which U.S. actions in Vietnam were judged, Sartre was clear that those responsible were not individual statesmen or military leaders but U.S. imperialism writ large. What of the Iraq tribunal? For many activists, Çubukçu shows, the tribunal was to be little more than an appendage to the existing institutions of international criminal law. The ICC, ICTR and ICTY should provide a model for the tribunal; its aim should even be to “motivate the prosecutor of the ICC to take up the case against Tony Blair.” Indeed, Blair and Bush were both in fact “summoned” to the tribunal’s closing session. The risk, of course, in adopting the institutions of international criminal law as a model is the privatization and individualization of responsibility for what is in fact structural and systemic. Other organisers, Çubukçu shows, were indeed interested in the systemic forces behind the invasion: many, she writes, “wished to interrogate and judge not (only) individuals, but ‘political structures’ and the formation of a ‘new imperial world order.’” But here Çubukçu remains elusive: of what do these “political structures” consist? Imperialism is mentioned in passing; capitalism not at all. This reflects perhaps less Çubukçu’s disinterest than the political confusion of a diverse network of activists. For all Sartre’s preoccupation with legality, he was at least clearsighted about the engine behind the U.S. war machine: “capitalist imperialism.”