The World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI) held its culminating session in Istanbul June 24-27, the last and most elaborate of sixteen condemnations of the Iraq War held worldwide in the past two years, in Barcelona, Tokyo, Brussels, Seoul, New York, London, Mumbai and other cities. The Istanbul session used the verdicts and some of the testimony from the earlier sessions; the cumulative nature of the sessions built interest among peace activists, resulting in this final session having by far the strongest international flavor. The cumulative process, described by organizers as “the tribunal movement,” is unique in history: Never before has a war aroused this level of protest on a global scale–first to prevent it (the huge February 15, 2003, demonstrations in eighty countries) and then to condemn its inception and conduct. The WTI expresses the opposition of global civil society to the Iraq War, a project perhaps best described as a form of “moral globalization.”
The WTI generated intense interest in Turkey, Europe, the Arab world and on the Internet but was ignored by the American mainstream media. Here in Istanbul, the WTI was treated for days as the number-one news story. There are several explanations for this, starting with near-unanimous opposition to the Iraq War in Turkey. More relevant were the vivid connections between Turkey and the war: physical proximity, an array of adverse effects and, more dramatic, a contradictory government posture–the refusal of the Turkish parliament in 2003 to give in to US pressure to authorize an invasion of Iraq from Turkish territory, while the Prime Minister allowed the continuing use of the huge US air base at Incirlik for strategic operations during and after the war.
The WTI was loosely inspired by the Bertrand Russell tribunal held in Copenhagen and Stockholm in 1967 to protest the Vietnam War, which documented with extensive testimony the allegations of criminality associated with the American role in Vietnam. The Russell tribunal featured the participation of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and other notable European left intellectuals. It relied on international law and morality to condemn the war but made no pretension of being a legal body, and its jury contained no international law experts.
Of course, a tribunal of this sort is immediately criticized on one hand as a kangaroo court that ignores the other sides of the legal and political argument and, on the other, is treated as a meaningless use of a courtroom format since there is neither an adversary process nor enforcement powers. In my view, these criticisms reveal a misunderstanding of the undertaking. To be sure, the WTI is not an organ of the state and cannot count on its judgments being implemented by such state institutions as police or prisons. Rather, the WTI is self-consciously an organ of civil society, with its own potential enforcement by way of economic boycotts, civil disobedience and political campaigns. And on the substantive issues of legality, it is designed to confirm the truth of the widely held allegations about the Iraq War, not to discover the truth by way of political, legal and moral inquiry and debate. It proceeds from a presumption that the allegations of illegality and criminality are valid and that its job is to reinforce that conclusion as persuasively and vividly as possible.
The motivations of citizens to organize such a tribunal do not arise from uncertainty about issues of legality and morality but from a conviction that the institutions of the state, including the UN, have failed to act to protect a vulnerable people against such Nuremberg crimes as aggression, violations of the laws of war and crimes against humanity. It is only because of such institutional failures in the face of ongoing suffering and abuse in Iraq that individuals and institutions made the immense organizational effort to put together this kind of transnational civic tribunal. We should also recall that the Nuremberg Tribunal’s enduring contribution was not finding out whether the Nazi regime had committed the crimes alleged but documenting its criminality.
The decision of the WTI was rendered by a fifteen-member Jury of Conscience, chaired by Indian novelist Arundhati Roy and including two Americans, David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and Eve Ensler of Vagina Monologues fame. A Panel of Advocates–coordinated by Turgut Tarhanli, dean of the Bilgi Law School in Istanbul, and myself–organized the fifty-four presentations. The advocates came from diverse backgrounds, and the presentations included some incisive analyses of international-law issues by such respected world experts as Christine Chinkin of the London School of Economics; two former UN assistant secretaries general, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponek, both of whom had resigned in the 1990s to protest the UN’s role in Iraq; several seemingly credible eyewitnesses who had held important nongovernment jobs in pre-invasion Iraq, who gave accounts of the devastation and cruelty of the occupation; Tim Goodrich, a former American soldier and co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who gave a moving presentation of why he turned against the war; and overall assessments of how the war fits into American ambitions for global empire, by such renowned intellectuals as Samir Amin, Johan Galtung and Walden Bello. Their presentations combined an acute explanation of the strains on world order arising from predatory forms of economic globalization with the view that the US response to 9/11 was mainly motivated by regional and global strategic aims and only incidentally, if at all, by antiterrorism.
After compromise and debate, the jury reached a unanimous verdict that combined findings with recommendations for action. Its core conclusion condemned the Iraq War as a war of aggression in violation of the UN Charter and international law, and determined that those responsible for planning and waging it should be held criminally responsible. George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Paul Wolfowitz were listed in the verdict by name. Less predictable was that the UN was faulted for failing to fulfill its responsibilities to protect member states against aggression. One recommendation supported the rights of the Iraqi people to resist an illegal occupation, as authorized by international law. Further recommendations specified that US media be held responsible for contributing to the war of aggression, that American products associated with corporations doing business in Iraq–like Halliburton, Coca-Cola, Bechtel and Boeing–be boycotted and that peace movement activists around the world urge the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Iraq. The verdict was framed as a moral and political assessment of the Iraq War, and relied on the guidelines of international law to lend weight to its conclusions. The jury’s view of international law accords with a virtually unanimous consensus of international-law experts outside the United States and Britain.
Arundhati Roy imparted the prevailing spirit of civic dedication and moral leadership in a public statement at the culminating session. Her words summarize the experience for many of us: “The World Tribunal on Iraq places its faith in the consciences of millions of people across the world who do not wish to stand by and watch while the people of Iraq are being slaughtered, subjugated and humiliated.”
Richard Falk, chair of the board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, is the author of Religion and Humane Global Governance (Palgrave) and, most recently, The Great Terror War (Olive Branch). He is currently visiting professor of global studies at UC Santa Barbara.
Originally published in the August 1, 2005 edition of The Nation.