Goossens on Çubukçu, 'For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq'

Ayça Çubukçu
Johanna Goossens

Ayça Çubukçu. For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. 240 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-5050-3.

Reviewed by Johanna Goossens (Erasmus University Rotterdam) Published on H-Diplo (September, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

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The beginning of a century always seems to be accompanied by both violence and existential turmoil, and the beginning of the twenty-first century was no exception. Although perhaps not the intention of Ayça Çubukçu in her book For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq, one of the aspects that stands out is that the turmoil surrounding the circumstances of the Iraq War at the dawn of the twenty-first century, had to do with the sedimentation of the end of liberal peace. In the period between the end of the Cold War and before 9/11, there may have been issues, but there seemed to be a sense that the system was working. However, post-9/11 and the subsequent war in Iraq, those feelings were justifiably called into question.

Throughout her book, Çubukçu very clearly highlights the existential crisis that the liberal world order was forced to reconcile with in the face of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003—specifically, the existential crisis surrounding its claims to cosmopolitanism as well as the role of human rights and international law. As Çubukçu states, For the Love of Humanity “is based on two years of fieldwork with the transnational network of anti-war 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” (p. 3). Her research was carried out through participant observation, and despite the legal arena in which the WTI took place, For the Love of Humanity is very understandable to a lay person and very compelling. Çubukçu accomplishes this not by narrowing in on what the WTI claimed to do in comparison with what it actually did, although that is touched upon, but by isolating the core debates about the identity of the WTI. These debates reflect, both explicitly through WTI members and implicitly through Çubukçu’s analysis, deep fissures within academia and even among the human rights/international law practitioners about the role of international law and cosmopolitanism. These schisms are also broken down for the reader and made accessible. In fact, in many ways, For the Love of Humanity is an excellent example of the opaque relationship between academia and practice, thanks to her methodological approach that “combines ethnographic work on global political action with close readings in political theory” (p. 5).

Through an analysis of the WTI, Çubukçu takes aim at the politics of cosmopolitanism, revealing how the corner stones of cosmopolitanism, human rights, and international law “become entangled with the violence of imperial practices” (p. 6). She does this in chapter 1 by outlining the tensions between two ideological camps that were present at the founding meeting of the WTI in Istanbul, what she refers to as the legalistic perspective and the political perspective. Although the main purpose of the WTI was “'to tell and disseminate the truth about the Iraq War’” (p. 4), the question of how it should go about doing this was a serious point of contention. As Çubukçu explains, those who defended the legalistic perspective saw the role of the WTI as a mechanism of international law. For the organization to have legitimacy on the world stage, it needed to stick to the already existing laws and evaluate the war in Iraq according to those standards alone. However, as Çubukçu points out, the political perspective highlighted how the Iraq War was an example not only of the failure of international law, but also of how the discourse of human rights was used by the US and its allies as a justification of the war in Iraq despite the UN’s objections. This raised questions about the legitimacy and very mission of the WTI, which Çubukçu explains were loosely reconciled by focusing on the WTI as a participant acting within the global antiwar movement. As such, it was not necessarily bound solely to the language of international law, but it nevertheless remained tied to investigating the Iraq War on the basis of human rights violations such as crimes against humanity.

Çubukçu highlights that the compromise between the legalistic perspective and the political perspective was not without problems, which she expands upon in chapter 2. One of the fissures that erupted concerned the question of who was to be included in the “nonhierarchical network organization” (p. 45). In other words, how would the WTI define its coherence as a global movement among an assemblage of local initiatives that had different procedures and focal points? Here she reaffirms that the focus of the tribunal taking place “within antiwar movements” (p. 51) was a critical component of the WTI, which begins to touch upon the crux of her argument.

The main (although certainly not the only) political theory that provides the lens through which Çubukçu analyzes the work of the WTI is based on Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2001) as well as their subsequent Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2005). As part of this lens, Çubukçu rightly points out what Hardt and Negri refer to as “the recognition that the forms of domination and authority we are fighting against continually reappear in the resistance movements themselves.”[1] We can see this most clearly in chapter 3 and 4. In chapter 3, Çubukçu details a moment of controversy within the WTI that reaffirmed the conflict between the legalistic and political perspectives, which had to do with Amnesty International’s (AI) decision to participate in the drafting of the new Iraqi constitution in coordination with the United States. Çubukçu explains that one of the WTI’s constituents, the Brussels Tribunal (BT), circulated a letter that they wished to send to AI.

The controversy over the letter to AI rests on the fact that the BT was critical of AI’s decision to work with the occupying force that was complicit in the violation of human rights in Iraq. In other words, BT pointed out the hypocrisy of trying to implement a constitution that protects human rights, when the very founding of that constitution was predicated not only on the violation of international law but also human rights violations (think Abu Ghraib). Those who defended what Çubukçu refers to as the politics of legality were typically willing to justify AI’s position because although the foundational moment of this constitution may have been illegitimate, the “fact of law” (p. 88) was that they should take this opportunity to ensure that human rights were a central focus of the new Iraqi constitution. The problem with ignoring the issue of legitimacy and backing AI, as Çubukçu points out, is that the WTI would be ignoring how, as a member stated, “‘NGOs do good things. They also do bad things. According to Negri they are part of the pyramid of Empire and surely he has a point’” (p. 91). NGOs operate as part of empire building when human rights violations (which surely go on all over the world and are perpetrated even by those who claim to be their champion) become a justification for intervention in certain situations, cloaking an underlying intent to establish imperialist power dynamics within a country or region. 

However, what is noteworthy is that Çubukçu unpacks this discussion by engaging with liberal discourses about international law and human rights directly. Beginning in chapter 3 and continuing throughout chapter 4, she examines the implications of a discussion that occurred within the BT about “‘empire’s law’” vs. “‘law’s empire’” (p. 132). This discussion revolved around how certain political thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas (who was discussed extensively within the WTI and by Çubukçu), Amy Bartholomew, “and other theorists of legal cosmopolitanism [who] would not, in principle, oppose military interventions in the name of human rights [such as in the case of the NATO intervention in Kosovo], but seek to clarify the criteria for their legal and legitimate exercise” (p. 132). This is a thorny issue that Çubukçu hits at, which in many ways implicates cosmopolitanism, in and of itself, in imperialism. As Çubukçu explains, legal cosmopolitanism is predicated on egalitarian universalism, which becomes a form of violence because it is a tool used to regulate and control certain nations. Essentially it becomes a regime embedded within nation-state power dynamics.

What Çubukçu exposes through this example are “the antinomies and paradoxes” which are “intrinsic to the politics of human rights” (p. 85). This is a bold critique, especially since the WTI is also implicated in the politics of human rights, but this is somewhat resolved by Çubukçu's identification of the WTI as what Hardt and Negri refer to as a multitude. However, this also brings us to a limitation in the book. At several instances Çubukçu attempts to reconcile the intrinsic paradoxes of human rights, which fundamentally prop up and operate within imperialism—of which the WTI is simultaneously a part of and also against—by relying on an aspect of Hardt and Negri’s conception of the multitude that places the subversive weight of the multitude on its actions and less so on the discourse of its identity. For example, at the very end of the book, Çubukçu states that “ultimately what indeed matter are the experiments of the conclusions drawn by ‘the multitude’ in praxis—such as, I submit, the World Tribunal on Iraq” (p. 157). This is mirrored by her assertion at the end of chapter 1 when she states, “If the texts of the WTI’s founding act are deconstructable to the bone, just like any righteous (un)foundedness, the bodies that day after day, month after month, year after year constituted the WTI in action can still remain untouched by such deconstruction, not the least because action is not only a lingual, but also a touching affair” (p. 42).

Although Çubukçu provides in-depth analysis of many subjects throughout the book, one area that could have been discussed in more detail was the implications of classifying the WTI as a multitude. However, this does not mean that her analysis illustrating the complex and varied disagreements within the WTI can be disregarded as simply “part of the problem,” but that the issue of the WTI inherently being a part of the very system that is being problematized is not tackled at great length. As asked by Sylvère Lotringer in his foreword to Paolo Virno’s book A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, “The multitude is a force defined less by what it actually produces than by its virtuality, it potential to produce and produce itself. So is it really a gain over what existed before?”[2] In the end, what the WTI actually produced was a list of human rights and international law violation charges against the governments of the US and the UK, which is an action that is very much embedded within law’s empire as well as empire’s law. Therefore, at certain points a tension is left unresolved since the reader is supposed to put their faith in the potential of what the WTI could produce, that is, subversive debates and critical thinking about international law’s role within cosmopolitan imperialism, despite its inherent attachment to those mechanisms. This emphasis on the potential of the WTI, however, does not necessarily absolve the WTI of problematic aspects such as having very little interaction with the voices of the Iraqi population, which Çubukçu herself points out early in the book. Of course, no collectively is perfect nor should that be expected, but it is simply the opinion of this reviewer that if Çubukçu had tackled the issue of Hardt and Negri’s multitude head on through her analysis of the WTI, this would have only made this already rich text more so.

Regardless of this limited area, For the Love of Humanity is a worthwhile read for anyone who wants to investigate the intertwined relationship between international law/human rights and empire. NGOs, nonprofits, and tribunals typically rest on their discursive ideals to separate themselves from traditional state-power politics, but Çubukçu does an excellent job of blurring those lines while never losing hope in the ideals themselves.


[1]. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (Great Britain: Hamish Hamilton, 2005), 79.

[2]. Sylvère Lotringer, foreword to A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, by Paolo Virno (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2004), 12.

Citation: Johanna Goossens. Review of Çubukçu, Ayça, For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. September, 2019. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.