In For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq, Ayça Çubukçu illustrates how different and sometimes colliding understandings of justice, human rights, legitimacy and international law co-existed in response to the Iraq occupation through the case of the World Tribunal on Iraq, which sought to document and provide grounds for adjudicating war crimes committed by the US, the UK and their allied forces during the Iraq War. The combination of ethnographic insight and meticulous engagement with political and legal theories makes this a compelling read, recommends Ebru Demir.
For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq. Ayça Çubukçu. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2018.
Why is the use of international law becoming increasingly prevalent in global affairs? What are the consequences of the widespread use of such an incoherent, colonial and imperial law as the lingua franca? In For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq, Ayça Çubukçu asks these highly important questions and reveals the ambivalent role of international law in legitimising and/or delegitimising human rights violations.
The book illustrates how different and sometimes colliding understandings of justice, human rights, legitimacy and international law co-existed in response to the Iraq occupation through the case of the World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI) (6). The WTI was organised from 2003 to 2005 by a transnational network of anti-war activists (eyewitnesses, lawyers, journalists, scholars and so forth) in Barcelona, Brussels, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Genoa, Istanbul, Lisbon, London, Mumbai, New York, Rome, Seoul, Stockholm and several cities in Japan in order ‘to tell and disseminate the truth about the Iraq war’ (3-4). Çubukçu defines herself as ‘a participant observer during the conceptualisation and practical formation of the WTI, committed as an activist and anthropologist at once’ (3). In addition to creating ‘an ethnographically grounded critical analysis of the politics of human rights, international law, and cosmopolitanism in the early twenty-first century’ (12), with this book Çubukçu forges a space where the politics of human rights and international law can be discussed in relation to other cases too: after all, there are other victims of empire.
There were striking discussions during the WTI sessions which Çubukçu probes through an exquisite analysis. First, very important debates centred around the legitimacy of the WTI. Where does the legitimacy of such a tribunal come from? Can the WTI (claim to) represent Iraqis? Under which values or laws should the WTI act? Çubukçu’s ethnographic research method enables the reader to access intriguing conversations in the tribunal in relation to the ways in which the participants considered the WTI legitimate. In Chapters One and Two, Çubukçu categorises the legitimacy discussions under two headings: the legalist approach and the political approach. Supporters of the former sought the legitimacy of the WTI in international law. Some participants in the WTI argued that ‘if the correct procedural regime was followed’, the WTI’s findings would be irrefutable (23). Çubukçu regards this as an illustration of the ‘establishment of law’s empire and legal cosmopolitanism’ (26). Indeed, for the reader, it is striking to see that international law has become the essential language for legitimisation which even anti-imperial politics apply. By embracing the legalist approach, the tribunal seems to have also embraced, to some extent, its problematic and uncertain relationship to imperial power.
Image Credit: World Tribunal on Iraq representatives deliver summons to Bush and Blair (han Soete CC BY NC SA 2.0)
Supporters of the political approach conversely ‘articulated two different bases for legitimacy for the WTI: being a multitude of individuals who were world citizens and being a part of the global anti-war movement’ (30). With this approach, instead of acting under a self-proclaimed neutral body, some participants openly advocated the WTI’s partisan nature (30). The political approach seems to provide a broader space for the WTI’s legitimacy and to explore political questions than the human rights discourse. The participants ‘freed themselves’ from a human rights-dominated legal ethos and did not follow the legal path in order to seek the prosecution of leaders such as George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Instead, they ‘sought to demonstrate the connection between individuals, doctrines, and state practices’ (35). By looking at the structures and institutions which made the occupation of Iraq possible, the political approach to legitimacy went beyond individual decision-makers and identified imperial power as being responsible for the suffering of the Iraqis, among other victims. In fact, by identifying and addressing broader imperial structures and institutions, some participants created a wider space to shed light on other victims across the world.
However, bringing other victims to light when actually Iraq was the occupied and wronged party might have damaged the tribunal’s legitimacy instead of creating it. Were the Iraqis glad for their experience to be used as a symbolic case to bring forward other brutalities by imperial powers in different countries? Did people who were personally wronged during the occupation support the WTI to bring other cases? Did the Iraqis themselves believe in the necessity of pursuing the individual criminal responsibility of Bush and Blair or collective responsibility reaching from the US and the UK governments to the media and multinational corporations? Going ethnographically beyond the participants in anti-war movements and reaching out to the Iraqis ‘on the ground’ in order to learn their own conceptualisations and understandings of the WTI might have added another substantial dimension to the legitimacy discussions in the book.
Another very interesting analysis which Çubukçu provides for the reader is related to the symbiotic relationship between empire’s law and law’s empire. Çubukçu argues that ‘law’s empire is not an alternative to, but an articulation of empire’s law’ (14). The occupation of Iraq is a textbook example of this relationship. The book rigorously portrays how the imperial nature of law’s empire has been deliberately overlooked by very ‘respectable’ human rights organisations. In Chapters Three and Four, Çubukçu sheds light on the human rights-based constitution-making process in Iraq. Law’s empire prevailed to the extent that human rights organisations such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) simply dismissed the fact that the Iraqi constitution and the country’s domestic laws were devised through a violent occupation in the first place (empire’s law). Neither AI nor HRW raised any criticism against the occupation forces-led ‘Iraqi High Tribunal (IHT)’. AI instead campaigned ‘for women’s rights in the new, sham constitution’ (93). Such normalisation and ignorance of empire led to an implicit acknowledgment and endorsement of empire. Çubukçu argues that regarding the occupation as illegitimate but simultaneously pressing for the constitutional process to respect human rights is a paradoxical stance (95).
In For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq, Çubukçu interrogates the use of international law and human rights discourse by the anti-imperial and anti-war movement established in response to the Iraq occupation. Reading Çubukçu’s analysis of the World Tribunal on Iraq through her meticulous engagement with the work of different political theorists and across a variety of disciplines is a delight. The combination of ethnographic data with Çubukçu’s readings of political and legal theories makes the book compelling. For the Love of Humanity will appeal to scholars and practitioners researching a wide range of topics, including critical international legal theory, transnational solidarity and anti-imperialist politics.
Note: This article is provided by our sister site, LSE Review of Books. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Ebru Demir is a third-year PhD student and Associate Tutor at University of Sussex, Law School. Her research areas are transitional justice; transformative justice; women, peace and security; and peacebuilding in Bosnia and Herzegovina.