The Political Imaginary of the World Tribunal on Iraq

The following speech was delivered at the plenary—“Political and Revolutionary Imaginaries from Past to Present”—of the 16th Annual Historical Materialism conference held in London on November 9, 2019.

When the conference organizers invited me to participate in this plenary some moons ago, I agreed rather hesitantly. What revolutionary imaginaries had the World Tribunal on Iraq developed at the turn of the twenty-first century? Which of the tribunal’s many aspirations, inspirations, and implications could I convey? Did the World Tribunal on Iraq deserve to be called “revolutionary” in the first place—and in any case, what would that designation require in this century, which “metric of success” would that assume, what measure of radicality?

Many of you here tonight would remember participating in the largest protest in the history of humankind. This demonstration took place on February 15, 2003 and mobilized millions of people around the earth who opposed the impending war on Iraq soon to be waged by the United States, the United Kingdom, and their allies. Decisively, the World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI) emerged from this “global antiwar movement,” which had become spectacularly manifest that day.

From 2003 to 2005, the WTI held twenty tribunal sessions across the world. With the participation of the novelist Arundhati Roy as the Spokesperson of its Jury of Conscience, and Professor Richard Falk as the Spokesperson of its Panel of Advocates, the World Tribunal on Iraq’s culminating session took place in June 2005 in Istanbul, which became a global public event that received considerable media coverage worldwide. Its proceedings were later published as two different books in English and Turkish, while a number of documentaries preserve for the record public hearings produced by the tribunal over its two-year existence.

I first heard of the tribunal idea in Istanbul a few months after February 15, in the summer of 2003, when three women asked me to participate in an international effort, which they described to me with remarkable passion. Numerous individuals and groups active in the global antiwar movement, the women said, were planning to put the United States, the United Kingdom, and their allies on trial for crimes committed during the invasion and occupation of Iraq. 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 tell and disseminate the truth about the Iraq War.

As the late John Berger had asserted of the need to found such a tribunal, “the records have to be kept and, by definition, the perpetrators, far from keeping records, try to destroy them.” Someone had to chronicle the untold death and destruction that the war would bring. Someone had to record the great opposition to this war, “so that the accusations become unforgettable, and proverbial on every continent,” Berger had said. For this daunting task, these three women—and hundreds of other antiwar groups and activists across the world—had volunteered themselves.

The idea of an independent tribunal to hold the perpetuators of the war on Iraq accountable occurred simultaneously to antiwar activists in Brussels, Istanbul, Kyoto, Copenhagen, Seoul, London, Stockholm and elsewhere. Preliminary research and political memory quickly led them to the Russell Tribunal, convened by the philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1967 to investigate war crimes committed by the United States in Vietnam. Members of the Russell Tribunal included James Baldwin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as the charismatic leader of the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP), Mehmet Ali Aybar, whose participation in the tribunal in the late 1960s had kept its memory alive among left forces in Turkey.

It was the Russell Foundation, based in the United Kingdom, which initially connected antiwar activists to constitute a worldwide tribunal to publicly document and judge violations committed by the occupation forces in Iraq. The encounter of these activists as well as the expansion of their transnational network was facilitated at the European Social Forum, which took place in Paris in 2003, the World Social Forum, which took place in Mumbai in 2004, and at the European Social Forum that took place in Athens in 2004. At other gatherings of the global antiwar movement, too, the idea of constituting an independent tribunal was debated and endorsed—most notably at international antiwar meetings in Cancun, Brussels, and Jakarta.

World Tribunal on Iraq activists confronted the challenge of articulating and practising an anti-imperialist internationalism under difficult geopolitical conditions. As the historian Gary Wilder observes in his review of my book on the WTI, questions that WTI activists faced over two years of action are among the most pressing and difficult ones of our historical epoch. Allow me to quote him at length, for he distils them with clarity, these questions that arise from the WTI’s internationalist praxis of solidarity, which I address at length in my book.

How do we pursue global justice and planetary politics without doing so in the name of “humanity” in an age when Western imperial violence is so often and deeply mediated by human rights and humanitarianism?

How do we disentangle global justice from the language and logic of international law, which is itself largely responsible for securing the unjust world order that we now inhabit?

How can we leverage the form of a ‘tribunal’ in order to demand accountability and responsibility for criminal political acts, while trying, simultaneously, to unthink the seemingly natural equivalences between justice and law, law and experts, legality and legitimacy?

In an era when, “empire’s law” and “law’s empire” have become “so entangled as to be almost indistinguishable, how can we distinguish anti-imperial internationalism from cosmopolitan imperialism?”

In a time when international law is the only actually existing idiom of global justice, is it possible to figure the subject of planetary politics in terms other than the individual, the national state, or humanity?

In other words, the WTI’s praxis challenges us to analyse the difficulties and dilemmas involved in inventing new forms of internationalism today, not only with respect to international law and its complicity with imperialism, but also with respect to how we relate to each other as political subjects across the world.

A WTI activist and literary scholar Anthony Alessandrini has recently urged us to return to the Platform Text of the World Tribunal on Iraq, which was drafted after days and nights of fierce debate in Istanbul at the founding meeting of the tribunal in 2003. In rereading this text, Alessandrini finds that “the paradox around the impossibility of ending impunity for those state perpetrators who themselves have the power to define ‘crime’ itself continues to be the major political problem of our moment.” It is in the context of this predicament that the WTI, as “a performance aimed at exposing, and therefore opposing, this condition of global impunity” truly attempted the impossible, or, in Alessandrini’s words, “it did the necessary.”

While doing so, WTI activists—in anthropologist Lori Allen’s reading of my book—dared “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.” And in this attempt, many if not all WTI activists invited us “to pause and consider how progressive the cosmopolitan promotion of a ‘global rule of law’ really is.” In Allen’s interpretation, WTI activists “grappled with rethinking the meaning of sovereignty, intervention, and rights beyond a state-centric, top-down framework of political action” as they attempted to act beyond these liberal political forms.

Towards a conclusion now, I would like to turn to the afterword of my book, For the Love of Humanity, which consists of ten theses.

Thesis 1: The World Tribunal on Iraq created a global public platform where the invasion and occupation of Iraq could be collectively judged.

2: The WTI attempted the impossible. It appealed to the “collective conscience of humanity,” where it located the source of its own authority.

3: The WTI was a performance that produced reality. It acquired as much truth as people perceived in it. It made “the news” wherever it managed to take root, wherever antiwar movements were strong.

4: The WTI spoke in multiple tongues. Among ethics, law, and politics, it worked through translation.

5: The WTI’s horizontality enabled the participation of all in its consensus decision making. Its network form of organization provided [ONLY] a partial means for resolving differences in temperament and judgment.

6: The WTI was not an event, but a multitude in action, a manifestation. It lasted as long as it acted. It constituted itself publicly among analogous struggles of the past and future. It took part in a tradition.

7: As a labor of love, the WTI risked paternalism. It was too pleased with the participation of Iraqis in its processes as mere witnesses to their own suffering.

8: The WTI used the language of international law when it found the war on Iraq illegal. Yet its opposition to the war went deeper than questions of legality or illegality. When it declared the war illegitimate, it signified more.

9: The WTI had the audacity to question the authority of international law and its compromised institutions. It was correct in predicting perpetual war as a consequence of Iraq’s occupation by the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies.

And thesis 10 (we all know what thesis 11 is): The WTI was conducted from the perspective of humanity, for the love of humanity. This was its animating energy, its strength, its weakness.

Perhaps, as the legal scholar Vasuki Nesiah has recently argued, “working both within and against international law is not to redeem international law but to decenter it within broader social movements. Borrowing from Cornell West we may describe the progressive lawyering of the WTI activists as “keeping alive the social traces of past insurgent struggle”—a memory that decenters and resituates law in the history of social movements, in the performance of subversion, in political theatres outside tribunals. This unsettling of the building blocks of historical knowledge is key to the imagining of an insurgent jurisprudence,”[1] she says and an insurgent internationalism, I must add.

A final point on this note. In the course of addressing the political, legal, and philosophical problems occasioned by the occupation of Iraq, WTI activists developed what I’ve called a “partisan legitimacy” specific to the WTI, as distinct from the pretence of neutral arbitration typically instituted by bourgeois law and its tribunal form.

In June 2005, Arundhati Roy offered the clearest formulation of this partisan legitimacy in her opening speech as the Spokesperson of the Jury of Conscience at the WTI’s culminating session in Istanbul. With her words, I would like to conclude these reflections on the revolutionary—because partisan—potential of the WTI.

Before the testimonies begin, I would like to briefly address as straightforwardly as I can a few questions that have been raised about this tribunal. The first is that this tribunal is a kangaroo court. That it represents only one point of view. That it is a prosecution without a defense. That the verdict is a foregone conclusion. … Let me say categorically that this tribunal is the defense. It is an act of resistance in itself.

Thank you.

[1] Vasuki Nesiah, “Situating Critique at the Very Heart of Humanism—Review of Ayça Çubukçu’s For the Love of Humanity: the World Tribunal on Iraq,” forthcoming in the London Review of International Law (2020).

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