Acting Beyond the State: Toward a Cosmopolitan Awakening?

REVIEWS, 24 Jun 2019

Richard Falk | Global Justice in the 21st Century – TRANSCEND Media Service

20 Jun 2019 – The following review of Ayça Çubukçu’s For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018, is scheduled to appear in a forthcoming issue of the London Review of International Law.

Ayça Çubukçu’s For the Love of Humanity theorizes the global anti-war movement occasioned by the Iraq War of 2003 around her experience of involvement in an elaborate global initiative culminating in a tribunal established by ‘world citizens’ that held its final session in Istanbul. Beyond question, the Iraq War Tribunal (WTI) was an extraordinary undertaking from start to its finish, a worldwide non-hierarchical network of civil society activists that prior to the Istanbul finale in 2005 had organized separate tribunal sessions devoted to the Iraq War in major cities around the world including London, Seoul, Copenhagen, New York, Stockholm, several Japanese cities, Rome, Frankfurt, Genoa, Barcelona, Lisbon. Although there are many examples of prior citizen tribunals on a variety of controversial issues, none before achieved this global scale or were guided by such a grand visionary ambition.

The acknowledged inspirational origin of the WTI was the Bertrand Russell Tribunal organized in 1967 to document American criminality associated with its engagement in the Vietnam War. Relying on the prestige of the great British philosopher and his influential moral voice this innovative tribunal based its credibility on the participation of celebrity Western left intellectuals, with Jean-Paul Sartre serving as President.[1] What was most notable about the Russell Tribunal was the novel appropriation of a statist legal framework by private citizens for the purpose of conducting a comprehensive legal inquiry into the Vietnam War. The Tribunal secretariat gathered testimonies of witnesses and commentaries of experts, but based its authority to pass judgment largely on the reputation of its 24 prominent members, mostly men, including such iconic cultural figures as James Baldwin, Simone de Beauvoir, and Peter Weiss. Among its members was Lelio Basso, a prominent Italian jurist and legislative figure who later founded the Permanent Peoples Tribunal (PPT) in Rome on the basis of this experience, which has held many comparable sessions over the intervening years on a variety of issues that governments and the UN found too hot to handle.

As Ayça Çubukçu shows so brilliantly, relying on an ethnographic approach, the WTI was shaped with this background in mind, but with much more organizational self-consciousness and sense of enduring purpose that any earlier civil society initiative of this kind. WTI also featured a populist, feminist, and activist organizing strategy that was very different in style and substance than all earlier tribunal initiatives that were the work of progressive elites as facilitated by a closely knit group of organizers. Çubukçu recounts, as integral to the process, the conceptual struggles among the organizers about how to address the challenge of claiming an authority to pass legal judgment not only on the behavior of powerful sovereign states but also on the criminal culpability of their leaders. The ‘law’ framing this populist venture involved a convergence of motives, chief among which is the claim that ultimate sovereignty is located in people as a belonging to nascent polity of humanity rather than the institutions of government, whether national or international. Additionally, a justification for WTI was the widely endorsed political assumption that geopolitical leverage had paralyzed international law and the UN, allowing the overriding of Iraq’s sovereign rights causing negative impacts on global justice, world peace, and the wellbeing of Iraqi people. Relying on unattributed direct quotations of the participants at a lengthy WTI organizing session, Çubukçu makes us appreciate the clarifying fact that the organizers shared an overall hostility to the Iraq War despite their realization that the US/UK intervention had toppled a cruel dictator, guilty of many crimes against humanity. In this way the mission adopted by the WTI was to accord priority to worldwide anti-war and anti-imperial goals even granting that there were some human rights benefits resulting from the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

This policy assessment was the backdrop for a broader, fundamental, essentially jurisprudential question about the nature of the WTI as an initiative with many of the legal trappings and pretensions of a judicial proceeding yet conducted without the presence of the defendants or any prospect of enforcement. Çubukçu is attentive to this crucial issue of how to endow the WTI with legitimacy given its lack of formal authority. The Russell Tribunal was dismissed in mainstream circles as an anti-war propaganda stunt, a kangaroo court that proceeded on the basis of pre-determined conclusions that were alleged to make a mockery of the tribunal format. At the same time, the law framing of the inquiry was believed necessary to give WTI a credibility with mainstream opponents of war and the media that it could not have achieved by way of a mere political condemnation. In effect, the WTI was claiming that its proceedings provided the public with correct interpretations of international criminal law. These interpretations filled the normative vacuum created by the political failure of the current world order system to overcome the impunity of geopolitical wrongdoers.

Considering the issue more deeply, it is well to recall that the generally affirmed war crimes tribunals after World War II (at Nuremberg and Tokyo) also went forward on the basis of pre-determined results, although the defendants were present in the courtroom, accorded partial rights of defense, and the judgment reached was enforced and the defendants punished. These tribunals did receive criticism as ‘victor’s justice,’ but mainly because of impunity, that is, the crimes of the winners (e.g. strategic bombing, atomic attacks on Hiroshima, Nagasaki) were not subject to prosecution and could not even be invoked as defenses by those accused. Çubukçu discusses in some detail the contrast between the parallel American organized trial of Iraqi leaders held under the auspices of the Iraqi High Tribunal in Baghdad and the subsequent execution of Saddam Hussein. Such a formalized judicial proceeding in Iraq was obviously intended to serve as a kind of vindicating ritual for the attack, yet compromised by impunity for the crimes of the US/UK attackers and occupiers, as well as by the bloody end game of the botched execution of Saddam Hussein. It was as much a show trial as anything done during the notorious Stalin period in the Soviet Union that also indulged in judicial escapades, and in terms of the quality of the legal assessment compared unfavorably to the overall undertaking of the WTI.

What most interests Çubukçu is the challenge of using the legal scaffolding by WTI while not endowing international law with sanctity, given its historic role of upholding war and justifying imperial undertakings, including in the past European colonialism. She instructively compares the role of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo that gave a qualified endorsement to the Kosovo War with the WTI to make the point that the NATO War in 1999 set an unfortunate legal precedent for the Iraq War. In effect, international law enjoys, at best, an equivocal relationship to justice when it comes to restraining war making diplomacy of dominant states, and so should not be unconditionally affirmed.

In this sense, Cubukçu’s most provocative contribution is undoubtedly the quite original depiction of the driving force that animated the formation and operation of the WTI. In her striking formulation it was ‘the love of humanity.’ The thirst for legalism, a concern with justice per se, and building a global anti-war movement were all contributing factors, but as complements to the core motivation of ‘species love.’  This conclusion overrides, but does not invalidate the claims of the WTI to clarify the relevance of international law against geopolitical violators. The love of humanity encompasses the anti-war animus of a global movement that made use of a tribunal format so as continue activist opposition to the bellicose behavior of the United States that was hiding its imperial master plan behind a hypocritical commitment to protect human rights and promote democracy. In her view, the WTI, above and beyond all else was an expression of an emergent cosmopolitan ethos of species love that transcended national boundaries and could only be activated by the agency of the peoples of the world. It was this activation by the WTI that is for Çubukçu its greatest achievement, as well as constitutes the ultimate basis of its legitimacy.

The book ends somewhat enigmatically with a pronouncement that law and empire cannot be reliably disentangled, and for this reason law must be ‘interrogated and overturned’ in a similar progressive move that provided the stimulus to the WTI and the repudiation of the Iraq War. Instead of law, Çubukçu opts for a humanistic version of cosmopolitan populism, expressed by reference to species identity, and given a special twist by invoking the unexpected strong referent of ‘love.’ The book ends whimsically with these words: “Perhaps then, less violent and necessary may be acting for the love of humanity.” (157) We can only hope that Çubukçu’s next ambitious book will be devoted to explicating this tantalizing sentence!

Part of what makes this book so impressive is that its radical vision is sustained and deepened by sophisticated reference to the ideas of many of the leading European political philosophers of the last hundred years and by a social science methodology that relies on an ethnographic record compiled by a participant-observer who doubles as author. This fine, memorable book possesses a theoretical and practical significance that extends well beyond the confines of the WTI experience.[2]Çubukçunot only observes, reports, philosophically comments, but she engages by taking sides. As such, she is part of a recent academic trend toward ‘partisan objectivity,’ disclosing openly the author’s point of view rather than pretending neutrality. For anyone concerned about political activism, transnational organizing, a new progressive agenda, international law, the ethics of resistance, and the post-colonial, post-Cold War world order this book is required reading.

NOTES:

[1] For an account of the Russell Tribunal including a text of the proceedings see John Duffett, ed., Against the Crime of Silence (Flanders, NJ: O’Hare Books, 1968)

[2] For a comprehensive presentation of the WTI proceedings see Muge Gursoy Sokmen, World Tribunal of Iraq: Making the Case Against War(Olive Branch Press, 2008).

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Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).

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