People’s Tribunals – A New Norm?

Author: Regina Paulose

People’s Tribunals are a result of strong peaceful grassroots movements within society. People who create these movements share a common interest in discussing a legitimate human rights problem which has not been adequately addressed by a state or its entities. In some cases the problem cannot be handled in a formal judicial system because of politics or a technical legal rule prevents the issue from being raised.

Generally, People’s Tribunals focus on significant human rights issues.[1] The main goal of a People’s Tribunal is to shed light on a historical or ongoing problem to help foster discussion, create a record with legitimate evidence, and suggest constructive solutions to the problem raised. People’s Tribunals create space for civil society to engage in discourse and produce a legitimate alternative narrative.

People’s Tribunals are unique establishments. They address the specific issue by those who have created it. There are many examples and formats of People’s Tribunals. One of the most commonly discussed versions of a People’s Tribunal is the International War Crimes Tribunal, sponsored by Bertrand Russell. This Tribunal, held in the latter part of the 1960’s, focused on the impact of U.S. policy in Vietnam.[2]  Another Russell Tribunal was held in 1976 to address human rights violations in Latin America. These Tribunals became the inspiration behind the current and ongoing Russell Tribunal on Palestine, which seeks to “reaffirm the supremacy of international law as the basis for a solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.”[3]

Another model of a People’s Tribunal was created in 1979 by Lelio Basso, which was based off of the Russell Tribunal. The Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) is part of the international section of the Lelio Basso Foundation.[4] The PPT has had 36 rulings since its inception which have addressed various issues around the world.  One of the most recent issues that the PPT body addressed was the Bhopal Agrochemical Tragedy in India which killed approximately 8,000 people and poisoned thousands more. This PPT was created to address the crimes committed by specific actors who have continued to elude justice as a result of their actions.[5] Another PPT which was formed addressed violations by the Canadian Mining Industry. This PPT released its judgment in December 2014.[6] Another recent example is the PPT on Sri Lanka which discussed the ongoing issue surrounding the crimes committed against the Tamils.[7]

There are also People’s Tribunals which are independently created from grassroots initiatives and are led by survivors and/or victims of gross human rights violations. Two notable examples are the Iran Tribunal which in 2012 found the Iranian regime guilty of crimes against humanity perpetrated in the 1980’s and the United Kingdom Child Sex Abuse People’s Tribunal which launched in December 2014.  The United Kingdom Child Sex Abuse People’s Tribunal seeks to address institutional child sex abuse which has occurred throughout the United Kingdom and the crown dependencies.

Although a People’s Tribunal does not have formal legal authority like a court of law has, these bodies do utilize legal standards and rules of procedure. Interestingly, the standards and rules of procedure may model domestic law, international law, or be a mix of both systems.  However these standards and legal rules of procedure are drafted and unique to each People’s Tribunal. Given this, the language used by People’s Tribunals can easily lend itself to confusion. For example, People’s Tribunals always have an independent panel of “judges” who hear and assess evidence and the final report which is compiled by these judges is called a “judgment” or “verdict.”  People’s Tribunals acknowledge that their legitimacy and credibility is derived from the society which supports it. People’s Tribunals do not compete with governments nor do they seek to undermine them.

Perhaps because of its independence  governments may generally dismiss People’s Tribunals. Therefore its function should not be underestimated. For those who enjoy democratic principles, People’s Tribunals are true expressions of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. People’s Tribunals raise civic participation, engage cross sections of society, raise awareness on various issues, foster healing, and are a model of peaceful engagement. It seems as though People’s Tribunals have become a new way of peaceful expression in the 21st century.

[1] Byrnes, Andrew C. and Simm, Gabrielle, Peoples’ Tribunals, International Law and the Use of Force (October 16, 2013). University of New South Wales Law Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2, 2013; UNSW Law Research Paper No. 2013-74. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2342401.

[2] Bertand Russell Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal, available at: http://911review.org/Wget/www.homeusers.prestel.co.uk/littleton/v1tribun.htm

[3] Russell Tribunal on Palestine,”About” located at:  http://www.russelltribunalonpalestine.com/en/about-rtop. See also Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation , http://www.russfound.org/RToP/RToP.htm

[4] Lelio and Lisli Basso Foundation, International Section, “Introduction” http://www.internazionaleleliobasso.it/?page_id=207&lang=en

[5] The Permanent People’s Tribunal on Agrochemical Corporations, http://www.agricorporateaccountability.net/en/page/general/20

[6] Permanent People’s Tribunal Session on Canadian Mining Industry http://www.tppcanada.org/presse/communiques/?lang=en

[7] Bruce Haigh, “Tribunal delivers Sri Lanka’s guilty verdict” Canberra Times,  January 2, 2014, http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/tribunal-delivers-sri-lankas-guilty-verdict-20140101-305zf.html

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