Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

In the Face of Epistemic Injustices?: On the Meaning of People-Led War Crimes Tribunals

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

In the Face of Epistemic Injustices?: On the Meaning of People-Led War Crimes Tribunals

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper seeks to render intelligible the meaning of the vibrant tradition of people-led war crimes tribunals (PWCTs) which has emerged in the past half a century. Drawing upon recent postcolonial critiques of extant literature on geographies of care and responsibility, and informed by Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL), we question the capacity of the international legal system to provide justice for 'others' (especially subaltern and colonised communities) at a distance. We situate PWCTs in the context of the claim that the international legal system is systemically contaminated because it is conceptually Western. We interrogate the seminal Russell Tribunal on Vietnam (1966-67) and in so doing are led to place under scrutiny the postcolonial and dialectical ethics which characterised the work of French philosopher, literary giant, and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre before, during, and after his tenure as Executive President of this tribunal. We argue that insofar as PWCTs speak subaltern truth to power, they work to decentre the Western ethical, legal, and juridical canon and confront insidious epistemic injustices. We conclude that any search for a postcolonial ethics to guide caring from afar can both inform and be informed by PWCTs.

Keywords: Jean-Paul Sartre, people-led war crimes tribunals, Russell Tribunal, postcolonial geography, law, ethics, Vietnam

1 Introduction

In the shadow of the rise to prominence of officially sanctioned international war crimes tribunals (IWCTs), there has arisen in the past half century a parallel and alternative tradition of dissident people-led war crimes tribunals (PWCTs). This paper enquires into the sense which is to be made of PWCTs--their intelligibility, meaning, and significance. We construe PWCTs as public tribunals convened by concerned citizens who attempt to care for others at a distance (often profoundly marginalised, colonised, and subaltern communities) by taking responsibility for their right to seek justice in circumstances in which this right is violated with impunity. Casting PWCTs thus invites consideration of the extent to which such tribunals might speak to and in turn be informed by literature on geographies of care and responsibility. We are interested in bringing PWCTs into conversation with recent postcolonial interventions in this literature which unveil the Western centricity of many ideas about caring and acting responsibly and which call for a new postcolonial ethics to guide caring from afar.

Existing literature largely locates PWCTs in the context of the claim that the international legal system is systemically compromised because it is pro-Western by geopolitical fiat. This analytical register is not without merit but it does tend to assume it is geopolitics only and not international law also which constitutes a problem. PWCTs enter the historical stage in response to perceived pathologies inherent in the official system of IWCTs. Their mission is to ensure that everyone is treated equally in the eyes of the law, including its authors. Our starting point in contrast is Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL), which call attention to relationships between social power, epistemology, and juridical logic. We situate PWCTs in the context of the deeper claim that the international legal system is systemically contaminated because it is conceptually Western. Here doubt is cast on the adequacy of international law as currently constituted ever to serve as an adequate guarantor of justice for distant others.

At the heart of this argument is the claim that there exists a fundamental incommensurability between international law and subaltern ethics (although see Jeffrey and Jakala, 2013). Given life under conditions of colonial and neocolonial violence, at the core of subaltern ethics is the belief that the violence, killing, and torture visited on colons by the dispossessed is freighted with its own unique morality. …

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