Speech at the International Congress of Youth, August 4, 2018

The following is a speech given by Inder Comar at the International Congress of Youth Voices on August 4, 2018, in San Francisco, California. Other speakers at the event included Congressman John Lewis, Chimamanda Adichie, and Ev Williams.

Thank you. It’s good to be here. I’m really honored to be able to say a few short words to you all. 

I debated whether to have a slide show for you, or to have something on the giant screen, but my hope is that what I will say will be enough. That it will stay with you.

You have been born at a dangerous time. In a time of growing darkness. And while it is not your fault, you and your allies -- and I hope you will count me and the other speakers here as allies -- we all have tremendous work to do.

I wish I could stand here and tell you that you were born into an age of hope and optimism. That your elders had not violated their fiduciary duty to you, to hold this Earth in trust, and to maintain it, and to keep it, so that you could explore this reality, and cultivate the human consciousness within each of you, to the greatest and most joyous extent possible. And that you could do those things in a time of peace, and plenty.

But that is not what has happened. And I am not going to lie to you. 

We are gathered here, in this emerald city by the Pacific, for a reason. There was something in you -- some voice, some instinct, some intuition -- that guided you to be here at this very moment, that made you take your journey to this place, that encouraged you to sit here as you are doing now. 

As we share this moment, there are three things I want to tell you. 

First -- you must listen to that voice that brought you here. You must listen to that voice if you wish to start down your own path towards becoming the hero you were meant to be.

When I applied to go to law school I was enamored with the possibility that as a lawyer, I could make a difference in advancing the cause of human rights. And when I left law school, I realized that our world is not set up to honor and sustain the idealism of youth. It is, in fact, set up to beat that idealism out of you. 

It was not until I had set up my own practice -- something my own inner voice had been clamoring to do -- that I found the independence and the courage to rediscover my passion for international human rights work.

Everywhere around us, we are surrounded by the commands of others. Our parents, our teachers, our employers, our religious leaders, our cultural and media institutions, our governments, and even the apps on our phones -- however well meaning they may be, they are constantly commanding us, directing us, and too often, lying to us and exploiting us.

The only honest response to such a world is to honor that singular voice that speaks your truth. Listen to it. It will be drowned in the noise of the maya and the illusion of the modern age. But the truth it speaks to me is as plain as day, and I am sure that your inner voice speaks plainly to you as well.

Your elders abandoned you long ago. It may have been unintentional, and they may have meant well. But that is the fact. This is why the Earth is warming, why the ice caps are melting,why  the seas are rising, why species are going extinct, why every nation holds guns at each other, why torture, piracy, destitution and slavery remain facts of life for billions of impoverished people. So don’t worry if that voice which brought you here, is telling you something or showing you truths that seem out of sync with the way the rest of the world thinks and talks. The world is terribly ill. You are here to heal it. 

The second thing I must tell you: Fight the way things are with all your might. Look around you -- the world is on fire. And those who are in charge have no interest in building a better way. 

Let me give you just one example of the immorality and barbarism of those in charge. In 2003, my country, the United States of America, waged a terrible and illegal war against the Republic of Iraq. It annihilated that country and government. Millions of people are now dead who would otherwise be alive if that invasion had never happened. 

Yet in my country, if you listen to the politicians, it is as if the war never happened. Iraq is absent from American political dialogue. It is as empty a word to the American political class as Hiroshima, or Vietnam.  But the Iraq War was not just illegal, it was the “supreme” crime under international law: the crime of aggression. As the Tribunal at Nuremberg noted in 1946, “to initiate a war of aggression, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” The words of the Tribunal, that “War is essentially an evil thing,” was true then; it is true now.

About a year and a half ago, I submitted briefs to the Ninth Circuit court of Appeal, just around the corner from here, seeking a court order that members of the Executive Branch -- President Bush, and others -- had committed a war of aggression, and that they should personally pay restitution to the victims of Iraq. I argued that accountability for the Iraq War was of paramount importance, and necessary to sustain and uphold the rule of law. I told the judges that President Bush and his cabinet lied to the Congress, and lied to the United Nations, and that they failed to obtain the United Nations Security Council authorization they needed to lawfully use violence against Iraq. I told them that failure to apply the Nuremberg precedent would pave the way to a lawless, dangerous world.

But at the oral argument, the three judge panel was not too concerned with the Nuremberg Judgment. Nor were they concerned about Iraqis or the effects of the war. They were more concerned with discussing immunity for the crime of aggression. And in 2017, just a little more than a year ago, they fully immunized President Bush and his cabinet for any crimes related to the planning and waging of the Iraq War -- even for “heinous” crimes. They dismissed our case, and in so doing, they halted any further inquiry into the legality of the Iraq War.

I thought that by simply asking the right questions, our shared institutions would react positively. I thought,”that’s all that it takes.” 

But I learned a different lesson. 

And that lesson is that our institutions that we have, are broken. They are designed to protect the powerful against the questioning by the weak. They are not simply resistant to change: they will actively work against it.

I am telling this to you not to scare you from doing what you have to do. I want to give you honest advice that the mountain you must climb is higher and has more obstacles than you think. But that should not dissuade you. Like any good mountaineer, make sure you are prepared for your climb. Know that what you want to do will take time, and tremendous effort. Find the right allies. Rest when you find a good plateau. And understand that the journey is long. The Iraq War litigation ended in immunity, but it was not a conclusion or the end for me or my work. It was not even the first chapter.  It was and is the preface to the real journey and the real work that I am now only starting. My work is only beginning now, as I turn 40.

The third thing I must tell you: Die a good death. I don’t mean to be scary by saying this! Let me explain to you what I mean.

What I mean to say is that our time on this planet is quite short. And it passes before your eyes quickly. When I was 20, thinking about 40 seemed like a universe away. But now, almost 40, there is a sense of real urgency to my work because I know my days are increasingly numbered. I hope I will live to a ripe old age. But the Reaper comes when he will, and none of us know how long our strand really is on the great loom of destiny. Tomorrow is never guaranteed.

When I am much older and grayer, and near the time of my passing, it is important to me to look back on my life and say, “I made every effort.” That in the face of tremendous challenges that confront our species today, I did my best. That is what I mean by “die a good death.” When it is your time, know and feel with all your heart that you did what it is you are here to do. 

Most of you are aware of the grave challenges we face as a species. We are in the midst of the Sixth great extinction in Earth’s history. Humanity may not survive the next 100 years. Even as scientists clamor for action, governments do little, or even nothing, to stop the world from warming 3, 4, 5 degrees Celsius by 2100. The world that you and I woke up to this morning is not the same world that your parents grew up in. And the world 50 years from now will be a different world, as well. It will be much hotter and far more hostile to life, particularly human life. Governments will soon strain under the weight of a terrible refugee crisis the likes of which we will have never seen in human history. And there will be war, and conflict. 

The Indian writer Amitav Ghosh calls this day and age the “Great Derangement.” He writes that at every turn, we seem to be confronted only with choices that lead to our own self-annihilation. But I believe there is still hope. I have hope, because I have faith -- not in any particular god, or religion. I have faith in our simple human ability to make the world a better place. It is a very basic faith. And I don’t think we need much more than that type of faith to make a giant world of difference.

I have faith that our species will rediscover a commitment to democracy and human rights. My fight for justice for the Iraq War is part of that faith. Human rights is empty if the powerful, even the most powerful, are not subject to the same standards as the rest of us. And democracy is meaningless if countries are permitted to engage in aggressive wars against each other, to dominate and exploit each other under the cruel banner of empire. We must resist the allure of growing fascism and imperialism that seduces so many people. We must become political, spiritual and peaceful warriors who have taken a sacred oath to defend civilization itself. 

So I ask you: Let us be remembered, forever, as the enemies of dictators and tyrants.

I have faith that our species will rediscover a commitment to sustainability. The fight for a stable climate, for sane and humane economic systems, for environmental harmony; the fight for a global movement, shaped by treaty, that will sustain this precious planet not just for us, but for all life on this Earth; that is part of that faith.

So I ask you: Let us be remembered, forever, as the preservers of life on this Earth.

I have faith that we can develop a unified human species consciousness. Those of us who are the artists, the writers, the designers, the orators -- we must produce art, culture, literature, and a politics that acknowledges the things we share as a species. Not just our genetic code, but also our human consciousness, our capacity for joy, our desire for spiritual transcendence, even the simple happiness that comes from feeling the sunlight, holding the hand of a loved one, the awe from seeing the stars or the rings of Saturn. These are things we all share. 

So that when we see the starving child on the other side of the world, or the jailed dissident, or the weeping mother -- we should see ourselves, even if the eyes are different, or the skin is darker, or the language unattractive to our ears. 

So I ask you: Let us be remembered, forever, as the unifiers of the human race.

It is time for me to close. Listen to that voice that brought you here. Fight the way things are with all your might. And die a good death. It is a time of growing darkness. Be a light that shines in that darkness. Because when it is very dark, even a little light goes a long way.

Thank you.