How legalese can help free Palestine

South Africa session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. (Flickr/Russell Tribunal on Palestine)

What does it take to break a “crime of silence”? That was the stated purpose for Bertrand Russell’s original 1966 International War Crimes Tribunal on the Vietnam War, just as it was for last weekend’s New York session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. Though some activists see such public reviews as overly mired in legalese, this kind of tribunal — like similar past efforts relating to seemingly intractable scenarios such as apartheid in South Africa and colonialism in Puerto Rico — provides a unique opportunity to bolster broad, grassroots coalitions. Understanding the potential of these efforts is vital in order to break the very real silence around Palestine, both among activists and in society as a whole.

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine is a five-part, multifaceted examination of the role of global power-brokers in maintaining injustice in the region. This has included a 2010 session in Barcelona on the role of the European Union in supporting the growth of Israeli settlements, another in London on the complicity of international corporations, a Cape Town session on the appropriateness of using the term “apartheid” to describe Israeli policy, and the most recent New York event that opened at Cooper Union’s Great Hall, focused on the role of the United States and the responsibility of the United Nations.

Any assessment of the effectiveness of forums such as these must begin by recognizing the connections between international human rights law and the building of grassroots resistance movements. While the tribunal should not be expected, for instance, to be a motor force or political backdrop behind mass mobilizations, it can help broaden organizing work. My own involvement with the Puerto Rican independence movement throughout the 1990s helped show me how.

Although it was door-to-door organizing on the island and in Europe and North America that enabled the unlikely freeing of 11 Puerto Rican political prisoners, and it was waves of nonviolent occupation and civil disobedience campaigns that ended the U.S. Navy presence on Vieques, these campaigns were consistently reviewed by and grounded in a series of tribunals which set the international legal framework for our anti-colonial work. Through them, anti-imperialist ideas spread in Puerto Rico — including into partisan politics — and throughout mainstream “progressive” society. This was in large part because we laid the basis for our work on widely accepted human rights norms.

It’s also important to notice that the list of organizers and participants in the Russell Tribunal represent a model cross-section of the type of broad coalition we need to gather in solidarity with Palestine. Under the leadership of Belgian Socialist Party member Pierre Galand, the tribunal has put Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mairead Corrigan Maguire, a pacifist from Northern Ireland, together with black liberation movement icon Angela Davis and former Congressional Black Caucus leader Cynthia McKinney, now a representative of the Green Party. Poet Alice Walker was a juror along with French diplomat and World War II resistance fighter Stephane Hessel, noted for his role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. American Indian Movement founder Dennis Banks sat as a juror next to Roger Waters, founder of the band Pink Floyd, who in turn was joined by South African military commander Ronnie Kasrils, Argentine pianist Miguel Angel Estrella, U.N. international law expert John Dugard, and Michael Mansfield, who heads Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers.

The makeup of the tribunal represents an outline of the kinds of players we can and must bring together: pro-democracy activists, socialists, communists, anarchists and liberals, nonviolent activists and those who believe that armed struggle is sometimes necessary — a multi-generational, multi-ethnic polyglot with a wide range of skills and constituencies across civil society.

The tribunal’s New York proceedings, contrary to popular belief, did not end at Cooper Union on October 7 but continued for almost another full day at the United Nations. In presenting a draft of their findings, the jurors not only strongly condemned ongoing Israeli atrocities as constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity (including apartheid and genocide), but also criticized the lack of action on the part of the United Nations itself. The U.N.’s failure to rectify the situation of occupation and oppression after decades of formal review, noted the verdict, “is acute due to their exceptional gravity under international law.”

This is not, as Abraham Greenhouse suggested at The Electronic Intifada, an exercise in “futility,” a schizophrenic appeal to the U.N. to self-correct its own broken system. It is rather a call for independent and militant initiatives to target the U.N. — along with Israel, the U.S., the EU and corporate actors — as one more party responsible for maintaining an unacceptable status quo. At the October 8 meeting of the U.N. Special Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, Palestinian Permanent Observer/Ambassador Riyad Mansour vividly outlined escalating settler violence, confiscation of land and other ongoing abuses. A “new dynamic,” he said, is needed to push toward a just peace, and pressuring the U.N. could make a big difference in the coming year.

The nature of militant action was a subject of ongoing discussion at the tribunal, especially on the second day of hearings. Nonviolent direct action was cited as significant in the presentations made by peace researcher Johan Galtung and David Wildman, the executive secretary for human rights and racial justice of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries. The parents of U.S. solidarity activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip, spoke of the plight of unarmed internationals killed by Israeli military forces.

Though it is not the job of a tribunal to posit strategies and tactics for people’s movements, it was clear that consensus existed about the need for escalating boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns. In this regard, examining parallels to the South African experience of dismantling legal apartheid is crucial; there is much to be learned from the successes of building an international movement against apartheid — which included simultaneous and parallel BDS efforts outside of South Africa, constructive base-building inside the country, and nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns on all levels, even as international diplomacy and negotiations were being pursued as well.

Although activists had already been convinced of the evils of South African apartheid, forums much like the Russell Tribunal helped strengthen their work and increased the isolation of the racist regime. At a time when the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela were still considered terrorists by many in the liberal establishment, the mandates of mildly independent tribunals helped embolden local activists to push for greater work within community centers, places of worship, the workplace and schools. Today, South Africans themselves — led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu — are making the links between their own history and contemporary Israel.

The combination of increasingly difficult economic conditions in the Palestinian territories and the breakdown of the formal peace process at a time when informal, popular campaigns appear on the rise make this moment particularly crucial for formulating thoughtful, coordinated efforts. “There is an opening here,” Mairead Corrigan Maguire told me at the tribunal, “opportunities for increased work and pressure.”

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