The perfect storm

Published : Jul 29, 2005 00:00 IST

Arundhati Roy at the World Tribunal on Iraq in Istanbul. - REUTERS

Arundhati Roy at the World Tribunal on Iraq in Istanbul. - REUTERS

The World Tribunal on Iraq convened in Istanbul was a nearly flawless performance of a symphony of sorrow, outrage and condemnation of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of a sovereign country.

IT was on the second day that I got the sense that things were coming together in a way akin to several climatic disturbances fusing to create what meteorologists call the "perfect storm".

It was probably the combination of eyewitness accounts that made clear beyond a shadow of doubt that the siege of Falluja in November 2004 was a case of collective punishment. There was a damning expose of how the so-called reconstruction of Iraq was actually meant to make the country a free-market paradise for corporations and a chilling analysis of how White House directives made it possible for United States agents to snatch anyone anywhere in the world and transport him or her to the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba on mere suspicion of being an "enemy combatant".

The truth came out swinging like a sledgehammer for three memorable days in Istanbul, surprising even the toughest critics of Washington in the audience about how viciously and systematically the George W. Bush administration had ripped apart the fabric of international law, unilaterally rewritten the laws of war, and made the systematic violation of basic human rights the normal mode of governance in Iraq. There were hardly any strident voices among those who testified from June 24 to 27 at the World Tribunal on Iraq in Istanbul. It was, for the most part, fact laid upon fact, often in the form of unforgettable images, projected onscreen, not only of frightened civilians fleeing the massive firepower that U.S. marines directed at their homes, but of hundreds of hectares of valuable greenery on the outskirts of Baghdad buried under tonnes of concrete to deprive insurgents of hiding places.

The truth coming out in Istanbul was made even harsher by the ongoing final collapse of the lies that the U.S. and British governments constructed to justify the invasion and occupation. The release of the now infamous "Downing Street Memos" revealed how early the Bush administration made the decision to invade Iraq and how the U.S. and British authorities manufactured the myth of Saddam Hussein's development of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) to justify the planned invasion.

Contradiction seems to have become the order of the day, with U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney saying one day that the Iraqi resistance is on its last legs, followed the next day by Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld asserting that the insurgency will go on for years. Meanwhile, the servile U.S. media decry the mess in Iraq, call upon the Bush administration to recognise the bleak realities on the ground, yet assert, like The New York Times' columnist Thomas Friedman, that withdrawal is not an option and that the only solution is to pour in more U.S. troops into the meat-grinder that Iraq has become.

Istanbul was a collective portrait of a war drawn in compelling detail. This conflict, we learned, is a war against civilians, since there is no way for the U.S. troops to distinguish between civilians and insurgents, nor do they seem to want to.

It is a war against women and children, as shown by the fact that 250 of the people killed in the second siege of Falluja were women and children. Rape in post-invasion Iraq, Iraqi witnesses testified, is rampant, but a culture of shame and the lack of any trust in the criminal investigating and prosecuting abilities of the occupation regime have prevented documentation of its scale.

It is a war against culture, with witness after witness decrying the absolute failure of the occupiers to protect 4,000-year-old artefacts from looters, many of whom could have been organised by commercial interests outside Iraq.

It is a war with appalling consequences far into the future in the form of a rising incidence of leukaemia and other cancers owing to the massive quantities of depleted uranium spewed all over the country by U.S. and British shelling.

WHILE U.S. government actors, decisions and actions were the main focus of testimonies, other actors too were not spared. The 50-nation "Coalition of the Willing" was portrayed as a bunch of coerced, bribed, or opportunistic governments that dutifully read the script of "invasion-to-rid-Iraq-of-weapons-of-mass-destruction" written by the U.S. in its attempt to provide legitimacy to the invasion.

Ex-United Nations officials Hans von Sponeck and Dennis Robinson showed convincingly why the U.N. became one of the most hated organisations in Iraq owing to the sanctions regime it implemented before the war and its collaboration with U.S. authorities after the invasion.

Corporate complicity, the "Jury of Conscience" learned, was extensive, involving not only infrastructure builders such as Halliburton and Bechtel and mercenary recruiters such as Blackwater and DynCorp, but Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, British Petroleum and other members of the mafia of Big Oil.

The Western media's participation in the manipulation of public opinion was one of the highlights of the tribunal, as witnesses such as the writer Saul Landau pointed to the complicity of not only right-wing press entities such as Fox News but also the icons of the liberal press such as The New York Times, whose reporter Judith Miller actively disseminated government disinformation on Saddam Hussein's WMD capabilities and whose editorial line continues to be to stabilise the situation in Iraq by sending in many more U.S. troops. Not surprisingly, at the press conference after the tribunal, jury chairperson Arundathi Roy said: "If there is one thing that has come out clearly in the last few days, it is not that the corporate media supports the global corporate project; it is the global corporate project."

And there was, of course, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair's image as George W. Bush's key collaborator is more than well-deserved, the jury learned. For not only did he push his intelligence services to manufacture evidence to support the myth that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs, but he was an enthusiastic champion of an externally imposed regime change, though his own government lawyers told him bluntly that there could be no justification found for such a course of action in international law. This made him, like Bush, "a very dangerous man, indeed", as one witness put it.

The World Tribunal on Iraq was a striking display of how global civil society is supplanting governments and the corporate media as the source of truth, justice and direction as the latter institutions get universally discredited, and how well it is performing that role. The Istanbul session was the final act of a two-year process of about 20 hearings held in different parts of the world, including London, Mumbai, Copenhagen, Brussels, New York, Japan, Stockholm, South Korea, Rome, Frankfurt, Barcelona, Tunis and Geneva. It was a nearly flawless performance of a symphony of sorrow, outrage and condemnation organised by Turkish peace activists and performed by over a hundred people drawn from all over the world and from all walks of life, with a "Jury of Conscience" made up of citizens of 10 countries and a "Panel of Advocates" with 54 members.

It united senior leaders of the trans-border people's movement, such as international lawyer and university professor Richard Falk, the head of the "Panel of Advocates", and human rights activist Chandra Muzzafar, with activists of the 1990s such as the novelist Arundathi Roy, and members of an even younger generation such as Herbert Docena, who presented a universally applauded portrait of the economic colonisation of Iraq, Dahr Jamail, who has become one of the most trusted sources of information on the war, and the Iraqi activist Rana Mustafa, who risked life and limb along with photo journalist Mark Miller to make sure the world would have a film record of the destruction of Falluja.

The conclusions and recommendations of the "Jury of Conscience" are likely to have a powerful moral influence on the course of events, especially its call on U.S. and coalition soldiers to exercise their right to conscientious objection and on communities throughout the world to provide haven for those who heed this call. On the last day of the tribunal, Arundathi Roy observed that her thoughts and actions would categorise her as an "enemy combatant" in the U.S. government's view. As I joined the thunderous applause for the jury's decisions, I thought, yes, why not, we are all enemy combatants now, and proud of it.

Walden Bello is executive director of Focus on the Global South and Professor of Sociology at the University of the Philippines. He is the author of the recently published Dilemmas of Domination: The Unmaking of the American Empire (Henry Holt and Co., New York, 2005).

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