Global Policy Forum

The "Tribunal Movement" Holds Court in Istanbul


By Brendan Smith

June 26, 2005

These are not your average court proceedings. One indication is that the famed novelist and Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy sits on the jury. She is joined by a professor of international law at Princeton, a member of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and an Indian judge.

Welcome to the World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI), which began Thursday in Istanbul, Turkey. This is where some of the world's most powerful leaders are on trial for war crimes in Iraq. But here, the defendants are not present (although American and British embassies in Japan, Brussels, and elsewhere were served summons for the appearance of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair), the Tribunal is composed of scholars, doctors, judges, former UN Staff, artists, and lawyers, and the proceedings are sanctioned by no government or international institution.

Drawing on the tradition of Bertrand Russell's 1967 International War Crimes Tribunal on Vietnam, the WTI jury heard expert testimony from eminent lawyers and scholars on the application of international humanitarian law to US and British conduct in Iraq. The jury will also hear testimony from Iraqi victims of alleged American war crimes, including residents of Fallujah, survivors of carpet bombing, and victims of torture.

There have been twenty similar tribunals held in South Korea, Paris, Brussels, New York, and elsewhere around the world over the last three years. According to Professor Richard Falk, author of more than 30 books on international law, this "Tribunal movement" works "to reinforce the claims of international law by filling in the gaps where governments and even the United Nations are unable and unwilling to act, or even speak. When governments are silent, and fail to protect victims of aggression, tribunals of concerned citizens possess a law-making authority." After hearing evidence, the Tribunal jury will "draw legal, moral, and political conclusions," as well as offer recommendations and send the various witness depositions to the International Criminal Court.

Arundhati Roy responded to accusations that the Tribunal is a Kangaroo Court that represents only one point of view. She said this claim seems to suggest "a touching concern that in this harsh world the views of the US Government ... have somehow gone unrepresented." According to Roy, "If someone can seriously hold this view, then we really do live in an age when satire has become meaningless because real life is more satirical than satire can ever be. Let me say categorically that this tribunal is the defense," she asserted.

Before the start of proceedings, Richard Falk clarified the differences between the tribunal and a normal court: "[The Tribunal] is an organ of civil society, not of the state; its essential purpose is to confirm the truth, not to discover it; its jurors are dedicated, informed and committed citizens of the world, not neutral and indifferent individuals of the community."

Eight Iraqis have traveled to testify at the Tribunal. They include Wamidh Nadhmi, the official spokesman of the anti-occupation bloc of the Iraqi National Foundation Congress, and Haifa Zangana, a novelist and former political prisoner who was jailed and tortured in 1971-72 in Abu Ghraib by the Ba'athist regime.

According to Haifa "There are many people from Iraq taking part in this Tribunal because it is very important for us to document all the crimes we are enduring: the random killings, the collective punishments, the indiscriminate use of weapons, including napalm, the looting, and torture. Advocates of democracy like me are now finding their task harder, as the occupation makes a mockery of any notion of democracy. People in Iraq now laugh at us if we say democracy; indeed, it has all become laughable with this carnage we are experiencing, along with a stunning shortage of medicines, of clean water, of electricity, and of freedom."

The Tribunal plans to approach the questions of legal and moral culpability for documented crimes suffered in Iraq - ranging from the overt support of the "Coalition of the Willing" to the complex participation and acquiescence of Arab nations.

Among participants, there is much talk of finding new ways to reign in President Bush and Vice President Cheney, whether it be through the ICC, the UN, or more Tribunals held in a growing number of cities worldwide. For it is clear to the various delegations from South Korea, Stockholm, and India that the American people need the help of international civil society to evict an out-of-control tenant in the White House. And just as US civil society aided the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine or the fight against apartheid in South Africa, the Tribunal Movement is now pressuring for the re-establishment of the rule of law in America. This is the civil society version of the global pro-democracy movement. And we certainly could use the help.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on International Law Aspects of the Iraq War and Occupation
More Information on the US, the UN and International Law
More Information on International Justice
More General Articles on International Criminal Tribunals and Special Courts


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