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.