Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Citizens' War Crimes' Tribunals

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Citizens' War Crimes' Tribunals

Article excerpt

Ad hoc war crimes tribunals established by concerned citizens to punish the 'crime of aggression' and various atrocities, have a history stretching back to 1967, when the Russell War Crimes Tribunal was convened. Since then, several such tribunals have been held, providing an array of evidence to examine when considering whether such deliberations can ever be useful. The legacy of such tribunals is a mixed one, but it is argued here, considering the efforts of the Russell Tribunal of Palestine, that the attendant weaknesses (a lack of sanctions and jurisdictional force) can also be their greatest merit.

Are there not impossible things which no human action can make possible? - Marta Harnecker (2007: 70).

George Monbiot, veteran British activist and author had made no secret of his indignation with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Incandescent with rage, Monbiot felt that the citizen's arrest of the man he accused of war crimes was not only appropriate but essential for justice to be done. In 2010, he urged readers in The Guardian to arraign Blair for 'illegal acts of mass murder', or, to be more accurate, 'the supreme international crime' - the crime of aggression. The Crime of Aggression was first defined at the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II. Monbiot also inaugurated a website - www. arrestblair.org, its sole purpose being to raise money for a citizen's arrest of Blair. 'Anyone meeting the rules I've laid down will be entitled to one quarter of the total pot: the bounties will remain available until Blair faces a court of law' (2010).

Such efforts form the basis of citizens' activities in the pursuit of justice when there is a perceived reluctance to prosecute powerful figures who have been said to have committed high crimes. In such cases, citizen activism has attempted to fill the breach with at times novel exercises of judgement and condemnation. Democratic citizenry, as argued by Amartya Sen and Carolyn Forché, is an active body, rendered 'fit through democracy', a daily assertion of conduct that takes responsibility for actions (Esquith 2002).

Esquith (2002) observes that war crimes tribunals and truth commissions might be 'easily parodied and exploited' but may prove effective forces of 'democratic education in more consolidated as well as transitional democratic societies'. Such experiments might also be deemed exercises in the 'acceleration in conflict resolution and a persistent discourse of justice' (Teitel 2003: 70). The problems of establishing international criminal tribunals are complex enough. They are also deemed, as Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu (2006) remarked, matters of political choice, and creatures of political will. That does not necessarily imperil their validity, though it suggests how hostility to such tribunals may arise.

In the context of international citizens' tribunals, putative authority derives from assumptions of responsibility and duty undertaken by the civic body. Legitimacy for such civic action extends from the activism associated with social movements, non-government organisations and community groups. The peoples' International Climate Justice Tribunal, which had preliminary hearings in October 2009, provided a striking example of this purpose: 'Although the duty has not been granted us by any formally constituted legal authority, we recognise responsibility in the name of mankind and in defence of civilisation and Mother Earth' (Solon Foundation 2009).

The challenges presented by peoples' tribunals are best described by the theoretical suggestions made by the Chilean political scientist Marta Harnecker (2007) in discussing various forms of authority. For Harnecker, an 'a-legal space' exists as a means of explaining various collective actions that, while not legally binding, exert considerable authority as 'political facts'. They might have a legal flavour in terms of aspirations, but lack the formal status of law. Of interest to Harnecker is an acceptance on the part of progressive movements that they do not consider a 'theoretical, organic, programmatic crisis' disabling (Harnecker 2007: 66). …

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