|In 1966, British philosopher Bertrand Russell founded a tribunal examining US intervention in Vietnam [GALLO/GETTY]
The Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RToP) is a citizens' initiative that is sustained by contributions from individuals, associations, organisations and solidarity movements. Its independence relies on the great variety of volunteers and on the material and financial help it receives from multiple sources.
Thanks to a network of National Support Committees (Spain, United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, France, Italy and Portugal), two successful evidence sessions have taken place in Barcelona (March 2010) and London (November 2010), creating a significant impact on the audiences and receiving considerable media attention. At the time of writing, preparations are in hand for two further sessions, first in Cape Town (November 2011), where the focus will be on the crime of apartheid, and a final session in 2012 in the US, which will focus on possible UN and US complicity in Israel's violations of international law.
From the experience of past Russell Tribunals - on US military intervention in Vietnam (1966-1967) and internal repression (with outside interference) in Latin America (1973-1975), and judging from the conclusions of the first two sessions of the RToP, it is clear that findings of the tribunal provide a legally grounded body of arguments, constituting an important tool to be used by those who seek to ensure respect for the rule of international law, and the rights of the Palestinian people.
The RToP is an international people's tribunal, created in 2009 as a response to the failure of the international community to act appropriately to bring to an end Israel's recognised violations of international law. In particular, the organisers of the RToP were very concerned by the inadequate international response to the Advisory Opinion of July 9, 2004, of the highest judicial body in the world, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), on the legal consequences of the establishment of a wall in the occupied Palestinian territories - which called for the wall to be dismantled and which reiterated the need to respect past resolutions of the United Nations.
International law is very clear when it comes to Israel/Palestine, and should be at the core of any negotiations. Many UN resolutions (181, 194, 242, 338, 1322, 1397 and 1435) call for a State of Palestine to be established, while the right to self-determination was at the heart of the Advisory Opinion. The Advisory Opinion also placed a strong emphasis on the duties of third-party states to ensure that the Palestinians are able to exercise their right of self-determination.
Indeed, the International Court of Justice went on to articulate the duty that states have to bring to an end the practical and legal consequences of the wall (and by clear implication any other established systematic violations of Palestinian human rights).
Despite the ICJ's Advisory Opinion, the Court's above injunction has yet to be acted upon: The wall is planned to be 810 kilometres long, but whereas around 300 kilometres had been constructed in 2004, by the summer of 2010 it was already at least 520km long (ie: almost two-thirds complete).
Background to the RToP
The RToP stems from a long history of popular tribunals dating back to 1966 with the establishment, by Lord Bertrand Russell and French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, of the Russell Tribunal on Vietnam. The inaugural people's tribunal investigated US foreign policy and its military intervention in Vietnam. The extent of US aggression was little known at the time by the general public and the tribunal, through its detailed analysis and thorough testimonies, helped engender a well-informed and enormous peace movement that, from the late 1960s, made the continued US intervention in Vietnam more and more difficult. The Russell Tribunal on Vietnam had a very positive effect on US university campuses and highlighted the hypocrisy and lies of the US government at the time. Sessions were held in Sweden and Denmark.
This was followed in the mid-1970s by the Russell Tribunal on Latin America. After examining the US war against Vietnam, a war of aggression, the second people's tribunal this time focused on the internal wars waged by military juntas all over Latin America. One crucial historical event led to the creation of the second Russell Tribunal, namely the coup that removed Chile's socialist President, Salvador Allende, on September 11, 1973. On this day, fighter jets bombed Chile's capital city, Santiago, and destroyed La Moneda Palace. This coup was led by General Pinochet but was financed, planned and executed with CIA support.
Pinochet established the first military junta in Latin America. A few years later, most Latin American countries were governed by repressive military regimes. Dissent was not authorised, torture became widespread, the number of political prisoners grew by thousands, and thousands more simply vanished. They became known as "the desaparecidos" - the disappeared.
The tribunal was chaired by Hortensia Bussi de Allende, Salvador Allende's wife, and took place in Brussels and Rome. It led to the creation of the Permanent People's Tribunal in Rome in 1979.
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On March 4, 2009, more than 35 years after the Tribunal on Latin America and a few weeks after the end of "Operation Cast Lead" (Israel's assault on Gaza, which left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead, including hundreds of women and children), a press conference in Brussels, chaired by the Tribunal's general coordinator Pierre Galand, launched the RToP. Ken Loach, Paul Laverty, Stephane Hessel, Jean Ziegler, Raji Sourani, Leila Shahid, Nurit Peled-Elhanan and the late Ken Coates explained to an audience composed mainly of local and international press, as well as various European political figures, why the Russell Tribunal on Palestine was needed and why such a tribunal could, by its nature, have a very powerful and lasting impact on public opinion.
The RToP proceedings, which comprise a number of sessions, deal with different aspects of the complicity and responsibilities of states, international organisations and corporations in the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel and the perpetuation of the violations of international law committed by Israel. They also aim to highlight the continuity and comprehensiveness of Israeli policies that appear to have the ultimate aim of preventing the exercise of Palestinian self-determination.
The tribunal is also interested in empowering civil society and reinforcing the work of already existing campaigns by providing additional legal arguments and ideas that will assist in future litigation and legal lobbying. Most people outside the region do not realise the profound domestic legal consequences of the Israel-Palestine conflict. By actively providing Israel with financial, political, military and even moral support, governments, international organisations and corporations make the resolution of this conflict impossible. They are deeply involved in the fact that, more than six decades since it was raised, the Palestine question is still waiting for an answer.
Following the first two sessions that took place in March 2010 in Barcelona (focusing on EU complicity) and in November 2010 in London (focusing on corporate complicity), the third international session will take place in Cape Town, South Africa and will focus on the topic: "Are Israeli practices against the Palestinian people in breach of the prohibition against apartheid under International Law?".
While the title seems complicated for most people, the session will in look into very simple things: facts.
A stellar cast (including Alice Walker, Mairead Maguire, Michael Mansfield, Ronnie Kasrils, Stephane Hessel, Yasmin Sooka, Aminata Traore, Jose Antonio Martin Pallin and Gisele Halimi) will overlook the proceedings, acting as the jury, and after hearing more than 20 witnesses and legal experts over two days, will issue an opinion or recommendation.
This session will go back to the roots of the conflict and, taking place in one of the most symbolic venues of South Africa, the District 6 museum, will bring a human perspective to the work of the tribunal.
The session will be opened by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a key figure of the resistance against apartheid South Africa, who has since then been active in defence of human rights and the oppressed all over the world.
Then the audience will hear from people that lived during apartheid South Africa, such as Winnie Mandela, John Dugard, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Ran Greenstein, Max Du Plessis and Zwelinzima Vavi (the Secretary General of the Congress of South African Trade Unions). Those people will give an overview of what was life under a white nationalist regime that thought of other people as lesser people.
The focus will of course mainly be on Israel/Palestine. Some key people, both Israelis and Palestinians, will give the jury a reality check of what the situation on the ground is. Lawyers and international law specialists such as Lea Tsemel, Emily Schaeffer, Mahmoud Hassan and Raji Sourani will explain where the law stands when it comes to Israel/Palestine.
They will be followed by people that will talk about the facts, something often forgotten in this conflict. Jeff Halper will talk about house demolitions and the matrix of control that the Israeli government has put in place, over the years, to suffocate the Palestinians. Activists such as Jamal Juma'a, Rafeef Ziadah, Mohammed Khatib, Jazi Abu Kaf, Shawqi Issa and Ingrid Jaradat Gassner will talk about resistance and what the people on the ground are doing to fight Israeli policies. Parliamentarian Haneen Zoabi will talk about the pressure she faced for exercising her freedom of speech and about the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Finally, international legal specialists, such as Rafaelle Maison, Francois Dubuisson, David Keane, Luciana Coconi and Joseph Schechla will put the session in the context of international humanitarian law and various international conventions (including the fourth Geneva Conventions).
The whole exercise will therefore give the jury, the audience, and the media an exhaustive overview of the past, the present and what is possible in terms of legal actions and civil society resistance in the future.
Because the future is ours.
Frank Barat is a human rights activist and coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine.
He has edited two books: Gaza in Crisis (Haymarket/Penguin) with Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe, and Corporate Complicity in Israel's Occupation (Pluto Press) with Asa Winstanley.
To follow the Russell Tribunal South African session, including a live stream, follow the Tribunal on Facebook: facebook.com/russelltribunal