Ayça Çubukçu, For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Ayça Çubukçu (AC): The idea for this book first came to me in 2003, when I became involved in New York City and Istanbul—and then in Brussels, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Paris, Mumbai, Athens, and elsewhere—with the global antiwar movement mobilizing against the war the United States, the United Kingdom, and their allies were waging to “liberate” Iraq. That summer, I was invited to join a transnational network of antiwar activists who aimed to constitute a global civil society tribunal to put the United States and its allies on trial for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. This endeavor—later named the World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI)—took place over two years in some twenty cities around the world and culminated with a final session in Istanbul. There, the novelist Arundhati Roy eventually served as the spokesperson of the tribunal’s “Jury of Conscience,” and Professor Richard Falk as the spokesperson of its “Panel of Advocates.”
When invited to join this transnational network of antiwar activists, I was a doctoral student in anthropology at Columbia University and initially felt theoretically and politically ambivalent about the idea of participating in such a tribunal. After a few months of reflection, however, I was convinced that the network was so diverse in its approach to the politics of human rights and international law and so committed to practicing an anti-imperialist kind of transnational solidarity that I decided to participate in it both as an activist and an ethnographer to see, and to some extent help shape, how it would unfold in action. The desire to document and reflect on the praxis of this transnational network of antiwar activists, its cosmopolitan and internationalist imagination, its contentious approach to global justice, law, and politics, and its dilemmas, disagreements, and dangers made me write this book.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AC: For the Love of Humanity provides an ethnographically grounded, critical analysis of the politics of human rights, international law, and cosmopolitanism in the early twenty first century. It probes the paradoxes, perplexities, as well as the potentials of the WTI’s praxis in order to clarify some of the political, legal, and philosophical problems posed by the “liberation” of Iraq by the United States and allies. It offers an analysis of how and why liberal ideals of human rights and international law become entangled with the violence of imperial practices.
WTI activists confronted many dilemmas during intense years of political debate and consequent action, which they negotiated in the context of a comparable politics of human rights and international law concurrently enacted by institutions that did not (unlike themselves) wave the flag of anti-imperialism. For this reason, the book also examines the practices of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Iraqi High Tribunal in the context of Iraq’s occupation. Engaging in this comparative analysis allows me to present a stronger argument for the pressing need to re-evaluate, ever more critically, the relationship between law and violence, empire and human rights, cosmopolitan authority, and political autonomy.
Thinking alongside key jurists, theorists, and critics of global democracy, in the book, I situate disagreements among WTI activists philosophically, politically, and historically, and demonstrate how they exemplify the impasses of a transnational politics of human rights with anti-imperialist commitments. It would be difficult to place For the Love of Humanity within a particular discipline. It is a transdisciplinary piece of scholarship, working through the intersection of social, legal, and political theory.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AC: My scholarship has been driven by the desire to understand legal and political acts performed in the name of humanity. It has sought to offer a textured and nuanced understanding of what “humanity” means in particular political and historical contexts. I have also tried to understand how and why “humanity” articulates well with both imperialist and anti-imperialist undertakings.
In “The Responsibility to Protect: Libya and the Problem of Transnational Solidarity,” for instance, I examined the theme of humanity when addressing the Responsibility to Protect doctrine by engaging with cosmopolitan proposals for its violent application to Libya in 2011. What emerged there were telling difficulties that afflict attempts to differentiate acts of “foreign intervention” from acts of “transnational solidarity.” In my article, “On the Exception of Hannah Arendt,” too, I approach the problem of humanity thorough a deconstructive reading of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and her confrontation with the legal concept of crimes against humanity.
But most explicitly, in an article published last year, “Thinking Against Humanity,” I examine how two contemporaries, Malcolm X and Hannah Arendt, engaged with humanity when challenging liberal formulations of human rights. In this piece, I argue that the establishment of hierarchies amongst subjects with different entitlements to enjoy the human prerogative has been facilitated by their categorical inclusion in the order of humanity—specifically, within an evolutionary framework that recognizes their potential to become proper humans.
So my book, For the Love of Humanity, forms part of a larger research trajectory which examines the politics of humanity by addressing the complications that arise in attempts to define, critique, and practice various strands of internationalism and cosmopolitanism. The ambition of this work has been to understand how, why—and with what perverse effects—politics gets articulated in the name and language of humanity, its rights, and its laws in the twenty first century.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AC: Of course, I would like the book to be read both by activists and scholars, especially those who are attempting to think critically about human rights, international law, transnational solidarity, and the challenges of anti-imperialism today. I hope the book occasions further debate in these fields.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AC: At the moment, I am formulating a second book project, which will explore the question of violence much more explicitly than my previous work.
On an ongoing basis, at the London School of Economics where I teach, I lead a research group on Internationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Politics of Solidarity where we address these themes through talks, panels, and lectures. I also work as a co-editor of the Humanity Journal, the LSE International Studies Series at Cambridge University Press, and Jadaliyya’s Turkey Page—all which are long-term, collective, and intellectually formative projects.
Excerpt from the Introduction:
It was June 27, 2005, about seven o'clock in the morning. From the roof terrace of the Armada Hotel, overlooking the Golden Horn and the Blue Mosque of Istanbul, I could observe satellite-broadcasting trucks lining the street below. Soon, the World Tribunal on Iraq was to hold a press conference to present its judgment and declaration. At that very moment, the text of the declaration (drafted in English) was passing from the hands of one translator to the next. The novelist Arundhati Roy, spokesperson of the tribunal's Jury of Conscience, would, in a few hours, lead the way into the hotel's conference room, accompanied by thunderous applause and slogans echoing in multiple languages. Two hundred journalists, international and local observers, and dozens of cameras and recorders had packed the room beyond limits. Several of these journalists would see their names just below the headlines of their newspapers the next morning, as "the news" would break in large and bold letters on the front page: "Tribunal of Conscience Declared Its Judgment: Bush and Blair, Guilty."
The story I tell in For the Love of Humanity is based on two years of fieldwork with the transnational network of antiwar activists who created the World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI) from the autumn of 2003 through the summer of 2005 in some twenty cities around the world. I was a "participant observer" during the conceptualization and practical formation of the WTI, committed as an activist and anthropologist at once. The antiwar activists I worked with—hundreds of them living continents apart—were lawyers, journalists, scholars, NGO workers, students, musicians, translators, scientists, editors, artists, filmmakers, writers, teachers, and the unemployed. They belonged to three different generations and spoke in English—and in Turkish, Arabic, Danish, French, Flemish, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Swedish—with each other.
In the absence of official institutions of justice willing or able to perform this task, the World Tribunal on Iraq established a transnational platform where the war on Iraq could be publicly judged. The WTI's ultimate session in Istanbul became a global public event, receiving considerable media attention throughout the Middle East and "alternative media" coverage worldwide. Its proceedings were later published as two separate books in Turkish and in English, while a number of documentaries preserve for the record other public hearings produced by the tribunal over its two-year existence.
Within the tradition of "civil society tribunals," the World Tribunal on Iraq was unprecedented in its global scale, scope, structure, and sophistication. Founded with the principal purpose "to tell and disseminate the truth about the Iraq war" and to create an alternative historical record of Iraq's occupation, including the worldwide resistance to it, the WTI was produced through a decentralized, nonhierarchical network of transcontinental cooperation. In this important respect, namely its organizational form, the WTI was exceptional within the tradition of civil society tribunals.
Before Istanbul, the WTI network had conducted numerous sessions around the world and registered untold violations committed by the occupying forces in Iraq. While diverse in process and procedure, hearings associated with the WTI were organized in Barcelona, Brussels, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Genoa, Istanbul, Lisbon, London, Mumbai, New York, Rome, Seoul, Stockholm, and several cities in Japan. In this way, the WTI constructed a globally networked stage where the consequences of Iraq's occupation were demonstrated. During the tribunal, countless testimonies were offered by eyewitnesses to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, by international lawyers arguing that the war on Iraq was illegal, and by many journalists, scholars, and activists who all documented, contested, and often protested the reasons and consequences of Iraq's occupation.
I was particularly active during the many months of preparation for the World Tribunal on Iraq's early session in New York City (May 2004) and for its final session in Istanbul (June 2005). Participating in the conduct of multiple tribunal hearings and meetings in six different cities—Brussels, Paris, Kyoto, Mumbai, New York, and Istanbul—allowed me to analyze the commitments and tensions animating the WTI's laborious cosmopolitics. It is on the basis of this intimate engagement with the WTI that I offer critical reflections on the tribunal's (and my own) praxis of transnational solidarity over two crucial years.
The World Tribunal on Iraq activists confronted many dilemmas during those intense years of political debate and action, which they negotiated in the context of a comparable politics of human rights and international law concurrently enacted by institutions that did not (unlike themselves) wave the flag of anti-imperialism. To address this predicament, I examine as well Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Iraqi High Tribunal in the context of Iraq's occupation. Engaging in this wider analysis allows me to present a stronger argument for our pressing need to reevaluate, ever more critically, the relationship between law and violence, empire and human rights, cosmopolitan authority and political autonomy. To this end, I demonstrate how and why a potent critique of the politics of human rights and international law must rethink the legal distribution of violence globally and reconsider the proper commitments of internationalism, including its dedication to political autonomy.
The World Tribunal on Iraq remains a seminal exercise in transnational solidarity and political philosophy. So I convey the complexities attending its praxis, including the tribunal's global form of organization as an open network that functioned horizontally. Thinking alongside key jurists, theorists, and critics of global democracy, I situate disagreements among WTI activists philosophically, politically, and historically and demonstrate how they exemplify well the impasses of a transnational politics of human rights with anti-imperialist commitments. These impasses are particularly difficult to resolve when they concern the virtues of self-determination—that is, the problem of autonomy—in relation to the violent universalism of an international law that attempts to govern humanity with the promise of peace and justice.
Methodologically, I enact a model of scholarship that combines ethnographic work on global political action with close readings in political theory. The WTI's praxis was provocative on several counts. I approach the global constitution of the WTI by hundreds of persons and organizations embedded in national and local antiwar movements as fertile ground to explore the paradoxical politics of human rights and international law at the turn of the twenty-first century. The context is the thorny geography of cosmopolitics, on whose grounds, wars, occupations, and antiwar movements alike are waged through the language of human rights and international law, in the name of freedom, liberation, and democracy.
I explore situations where the language of human rights and international law is particularly able to bear what political theorist Nancy Fraser defines as "discourses of abnormal justice." According to Fraser, discourses of abnormal justice reflect the destabilization of a prior hegemonic grammar, whereby the what, the who, and the how of justice become subject, at once, to substantive debate. To date, there is hardly a more revealing global case of "abnormal justice"—a legitimation crisis, in the lexicon of Jürgen Habermas—than that evidenced by the occupation of Iraq. In that moment of crisis recognized and augmented by forces of antioccupation resistance worldwide, particularly in Iraq, WTI organizers produced public debate on the what, the who, the how, as well as, I add, the why of justice. On a globally networked stage, the World Tribunal on Iraq placed the grammar of global justice at stake.
Through a detailed analysis of the WTI, I interrogate cosmopolitan politics occasioned by the occupation of Iraq to examine the antinomies of this politics for establishing a theoretically grounded understanding of its lasting dilemmas and persistent dangers. In particular, I demonstrate how and why ideals of human rights and international law become entangled with the violence of imperial practices. The growing hegemony of a cosmopolitanism that can endorse the use of violence by many means—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria to offer a few examples—because it is dedicated to the idea of peace, renders the paradoxes I pursue all the more relevant as they continue to inflect and inform global politics.
While in most of the book I focus on cases of disagreement within the WTI network, I hereby aim to reveal how they reflect competing understandings of justice, legitimacy, and authority imagined in response to the occupation of Iraq. But also, along the lines of Richard Falk—jurist of international law, theorist of cosmopolitan democracy, and spokesperson of the Panel of Advocates at the WTI's final session in Istanbul—I consider the translingual, transgenerational, transcontinental, transformative travail that was the WTI as "an experiment from the perspective of achieving global democracy." If the result of this experimental demonstration is an agonistic, yet dialogical polyphony, this, I suggest, is a symptom of a crisis afflicting what Carl Schmitt called "the nomos of the earth," the principle of legitimacy orienting the world. More specifically, the cosmopolitical dilemmas I examine expose, left and right, a limit afflicting the democratic idea since its inception: the limit between the universality of principles posed within the horizon of humanity and the particularity of autonomies of decision constituted in the form of popular sovereignty.
Consequential for the inquiry offered throughout this book is the decision to posit on a single plane of consideration the cosmopolitics of the WTI network and the cosmopolitan principles that affirmed the constitution of a democratic Iraq before or after the fact of its occupation. I thereby highlight revealing commonalities between the two sides of the war of legitimacy over Iraq's occupation: those who proposed and those who opposed it. I remain convinced that implicit commonalities and convergences between adversarial camps are as telling as explicit disagreements and divergences.
As foreseen by Jacques Derrida in an interview reflecting on the World Tribunal on Iraq, the debates I narrate were underwritten by a crisis in which WTI activists were not "able to avoid talking about sovereignty, about the crisis of sovereignty." I suspect this crisis is not unrelated to a core question that orients the thoughts to follow: why do we care about justice, about the freedom and the happiness, the life and the death of each other, here and there? An answer offered by the World Tribunal on Iraq could be: for the love of humanity.