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Russell Tribunal


Russell Tribunal

Nine-year-old DoVan Ngoc exhibits terrible injuries from napalm in Vietnam.

The Russell Tribunal, also known as the International War Crimes Tribunal or Russell-Sartre Tribunal, was a private body organised by British philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell and hosted by French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre. Along with Ken Coates, Ralph Schoenman, Julio Cortázar and several others, the tribunal investigated and evaluated American foreign policy and military intervention in Vietnam, following the 1954 defeat of French forces at Diên Biên Phu and the establishment of North and South Vietnam.

Bertrand Russell justified the establishment of this body as follows:

If certain acts and violations of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. We are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.

The tribunal was constituted in November 1966, and was conducted in two sessions in 1967, in Stockholm, Sweden and Roskilde, Denmark. Bertrand Russell's book on the situation in Vietnam, War Crimes in Vietnam, was published in January 1967, and included a postscript describing his call for this investigative body.[1] The tribunal was largely ignored in the United States.

Further tribunals were set up in the following decades on the same model, using the denomination Russell Tribunal. E.g. Russell Tribunal on Latin America focused on human rights violations in dictatorships of Argentina and Brazil (Rome, 1973), on Chile's military coup d'état (Rome, 1974–76), on Human Rights in Psychiatry (Berlin, 2001), on Iraq (Brussels, 2004), and on Palestine (Barcelona, 2009–12). A hearing of the Russell-Sartre Tribunal was announced in Venice (23 August 2014) on human rights issues in the East Ukraine war.[2]

Composition and origin

Representatives of 18 countries participated in the two sessions of this tribunal, formally calling itself the International War Crimes Tribunal. The tribunal committee consisted of 25 notable personages, predominantly from leftist peace organisations. Many of these individuals were winners of the Nobel Prize, Medals of Valor and awards of recognition in humanitarian and social fields. There was no direct representation of Vietnam or the United States on this 25 member panel, although a couple of members were American citizens.

More than 30 individuals testified or provided information to this tribunal. Among them were military personnel from the United States, as well as from each of the warring factions in Vietnam. Financing for the Tribunal came from many sources, including a large contribution from the North Vietnamese government after a request made by Russell to Ho Chi Minh.[3]

It was followed by another Tribunal, known as Russell Tribunal II on Latin America, that held three meetings in Rome (1974), Brussels (1975) and Rome again (1976), dealing predominantly with Brazil and Chile.

At the closing session of the Russell Tribunal II the creation of three new institutions was announced: the International Foundation for the Rights and Liberations of Peoples, and the International League for the Rights and Liberations of Peoples, and the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal.

The Permanents People's Tribunal was established in Bologna on 23 June 1979. Between its founding and April 1984, the tribunal pronounced two advisory opinions on Western Sahara and Eritrea and held eight sessions (Argentina, Philippines, El Salvador, Afghanistan I and II, East Timor, Zaire and Guatemala). The latter was concluded in January 1983 in Madrid.

A special hearing was conducted in Paris on 13–16 April 1984 to investigate the Turkey for the crime of genocide against the Armenian people.

More than three decades later, the Russell Tribunal model was followed by the World Tribunal on Iraq, which was held to make a similar analysis of the Project for the New American Century, the 2003 Invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation of Iraq, and the links between these.

Tribunal members

Aims of the Tribunal

The Tribunal aims were stated as follows:

We constitute ourselves a Tribunal which, even if it has not the power to impose sanctions, will have to answer, amongst others, the following questions:
  1. Has the United States Government (and the Governments of Australia, New Zealand and South Korea) committed acts of aggression according to international law?
  2. Has the American army made use of or experimented with new weapons or weapons forbidden by the laws of war?
  3. Has there been bombardment of targets of a purely civilian character, for example hospitals, schools, sanatoria, dams, etc., and on what scale has this occurred?
  4. Have Vietnamese prisoners been subjected to inhuman treatment forbidden by the laws of war and, in particular, to torture or mutilation? Have there been unjustified reprisals against the civilian population, in particular, execution of hostages?
  5. Have forced labour camps been created, has there been deportation of the population or other acts tending to the extermination of the population and which can be characterised juridically as acts of genocide?
All participants in the war in Southeast Asia are petitioned to attend and present evidence, including Vietnam, Cambodia and the United States, as noted in this excerpt from the Tribunal's description of aims and intent:
"This Tribunal will examine all the evidence that may be placed before it by any source or party. The evidence may be oral, or in the form of documents. No evidence relevant to our purposes will be refused attention. ... The National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam have assured us of their willingness to co-operate ... The Cambodian Head of State, Prince Sihanouk, has similarly offered to help ... We invite the Government of the United States to present evidence or cause it to be presented ... Our purpose is to establish, without fear or favour, the full truth about this war. We sincerely hope that our efforts will contribute to the world's justice, to the re-establishment of peace and the liberation of oppressed peoples."

Evidence Presented at the Tribunal

During the First Tribunal Session in Stockholm, testimony and evidence was produced by the following witnesses:

  • Professor Gabriel Kolko, historian, University of Pennsylvania[4]
  • Jean Chesneaux[5]
  • Charles Forniau, US Civil Rights Attorney[6]

Conclusions and Verdicts of the Tribunal

The Tribunal stated that its conclusions were:

  1. Has the Government of the United States committed acts of aggression against Vietnam under the terms of international law?
    Yes (unanimously).
  2. Has there been, and if so, on what scale, bombardment of purely civilian targets, for example, hospitals, schools, medical establishments, dams, etc?
    Yes (unanimously).
    We find the government and armed forces of the United States are guilty of the deliberate, systematic and large-scale bombardment of civilian targets, including civilian populations, dwellings, villages, dams, dikes, medical establishments, leper colonies, schools, churches, pagodas, historical and cultural monuments. We also find unanimously, with one abstention, that the government of the United States of America is guilty of repeated violations of the sovereignty, neutrality and territorial integrity of Cambodia, that it is guilty of attacks against the civilian population of a certain number of Cambodian towns and villages.
  3. Have the governments of Australia, New Zealand and South Korea been accomplices of the United States in the aggression against Vietnam in violation of international law?
    Yes (unanimously).
    The question also arises as to whether or not the governments of Thailand and other countries have become accomplices to acts of aggression or other crimes against Vietnam and its populations. We have not been able to study this question during the present session. We intend to examine at the next session legal aspects of the problem and to seek proofs of any incriminating facts.
  4. Is the Government of Thailand guilty of complicity in the aggression committed by the United States Government against Vietnam?
    Yes (unanimously).
  5. Is the Government of the Philippines guilty of complicity in the aggression committed by the United States Government against Vietnam?
    Yes (unanimously).
  6. Is the Government of Japan guilty of complicity in the aggression committed by the United States Government against Vietnam?
    Yes, (by 8 Votes to 3).
    The three Tribunal members who voted against agree that the Japanese Government gives considerable aid to the Government of the United States, but do not agree on its complicity in the crime of aggression.
  7. Has the United States Government committed aggression against the people of Laos, according to the definition provided by international law?
    Yes (unanimously).
  8. Have the armed forces of the United States used or experimented with weapons prohibited by the laws of war?
    Yes (unanimously).
  9. Have prisoners of war captured by the armed forces of the United States been subjected to treatment prohibited by the laws of war?
    Yes (unanimously).
  10. Have the armed forces of the United States subjected the civilian population to inhuman treatment prohibited by international law?
    Yes (unanimously).
  11. Is the United States Government guilty of genocide against the people of Vietnam?
    Yes (unanimously).

Prompted in part by the Citizens Commissions of Inquiry (CCI) to hold hearings intended to document testimony of war crimes in Indochina. These hearings were held in several American cities, and would eventually form the foundation of two national investigations: the National Veterans Inquiry sponsored by the CCI, and the Winter Soldier Investigation sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Subsequent Tribunals

1973: On Latin America

1974–76: On Chile's military coup d'état (Rome)

It was a part of the Tribunal Russell II on Latin America[7] which was set up by Professor Lelio Basso (1973) inter. english version.pdf with the aim of investigating violations of the Human Rights mainly at the time in Brazil, Chile and Argentina. The Rome sessions of 1974 became however more concentrated on issues around allegations of human rights violations by the Junta Militar presided by General Augusto Pinochet in Chile and also dealt on the situation in Brazil. Secretary of the Russell Tribunal in Rome was Linda Bimbi. In the Scientific Secretariat of the Russell Tribunal in Rome (presided by Linda Bimbi) participated in 1974 among other writer Gabriel García Márquez, historian Vladimir Dedijer, and Professor Marcello Ferrada-Noli, which also left a public testimony at the Tribunal in his condition of former prisoner at the Quiriquina Island Prisoners Camp in Chile. Part of the testimony was reproduced in a scientific publication of 1998.[8]

Other sessions of the Tribunal Russell II on Latin America ensued in Brussels (1975) and again in Rome 1976.

2001: On Human Rights in Psychiatry (Berlin)

In 2001, Thomas Szasz and others took part in a Russell Tribunal on Human Rights in Psychiatry held in Berlin between 30 June and 2 July.[9] The Tribunal brought in the two following verdicts: the majority verdict claimed that there was "serious abuse of human rights in psychiatry" and that psychiatry was "guilty of the combination of force and unaccountability"; the minority verdict, signed by the Israeli Law Professor Alon Harel and Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, called for "public critical examination of the role of psychiatry."[9]

2004: On Iraq (Brussels)

In 2004 the "BRussells Tribunal" took place in Brussels as a continuation of the tradition of the Russell Tribunal as part of the World Tribunal on Iraq. Philosopher Jacques Derrida praised this event, stating that "to resuscitate the tradition of a Russell Tribunal is symbolically an important and necessary thing to do today."[10]

2009–2012: On Palestine (Barcelona, London, Cape Town, New York)

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RToP) was created in March 2009.

In April 2011, the association converted to a non-profit organisation, with legal status in Brussels, by Pierre Galand, Jacques Michiels, Jacques Debatty, Nadia Farkh, Henri Eisendrath and Roseline Sonet.[11] The former non-elected PS senator, Galand, was appointed president of the association.

The first session of the Tribunal took place in Barcelona in March 2010[12] This session's objective was to consider the complicities and omissions of the European Union and its member states in the Palestinian-Israel conflict.[12] The second international session of the RToP took place in London in November 2010. It examined international corporate issues in Israel and human rights law.[12]

The third international session of the RToP took place in Cape Town in November 2011. It asked the question: “Are Israeli practices against the Palestinian people in breach of the prohibition on apartheid under international law?"[12]

Pierre Galand pointed out that the Cape Town session of the tribunal had a budget of €190,000; €100,000 was donated by Editions Indigene, the publisher of the book Time for an outrage.[13] More than €15,000 was raised at a 24 September 2011 fundraising event by the Belgian support committee of the Russell Tribunal.[14] The Caipirinha Foundation lists the RToP as a grant receiver, but does not disclose the amount or the year of its grant.[15]

A fourth international session of the RToP took place in New York on 6–7 October 2012.[16]

A fifth and final session met in Brussels on 16-17 March, 2013. [17]

Criticisms of the Tribunals

The Russell Tribunal was included by historian

  • Selections from the Russell Tribunal
    • Aims of the Russell Tribunal
  • Russell Tribunal on Palestine
  • Reviews of the Proceedings of the Russell International War Crimes Tribunal and Sartre's essay, On Genocide
  • War Crimes and Vietnam: The "Nuremberg Defense" and the Military Service Resister
  • Interview with Frank Barat of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine

External links

  • Against The Crime of Silence: Proceedings of The Russell International War Crimes Tribunal, edited by J. Duffett, O’Hare Books, New York, 1968.
  • Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey, by David Horowitz, Free Press, New York, 1997.
  • War Crimes in Vietnam, by Bertrand Russell, 1967, see Postscript.
  • North Vietnam: A Documentary, by John Gerassi, Allen & Unwin, London, 1968.
  • Russelltribunalen. Directed by Staffan Lamm. 2003/2004.

Other sources


See also

A group of Jewish South Africans protested against the court, and the organiser of the protest called it a "Kangaroo Court."[26]

After the Cape Town session, Israeli MK Otniel Schneller filed a complaint with the Knesset's Ethics Committee against MK Hanin Zoabi, who testified at the Tribunal that "Israel is an apartheid state".[25]

South African journalist and human rights activist Benjamin Pogrund, now living in Israel, described the Cape Town Session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine as "It's theatre: the actors know their parts and the result is known before they start. Israel is to be dragged into the mud."[24]

Judge Richard Goldstone, writing in The New York Times in October 2011, said of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine that "It is not a 'tribunal.' The 'evidence' is going to be one-sided and the members of the 'jury' are critics whose harsh views of Israel are well known. In Israel, there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid under the 1998 Rome Statute."[23]

war crimes."[20] Horowitz's position does not address the fact that Sartre believed the US was engaged in a genocidal war in Vietnam.[21] For example, John Gerassi was an investigator for the Tribunal and documented that the United States was bombing hospitals, schools and other civilian targets in Vietnam. He offers first hand and documentary evidence about US war crimes in contrast to the claims of Lewy. His book provides many details of US atrocities and shows the larger motivation for the Tribunal, i.e. to expose war crimes, not to create a show trial, in contrast to the claims of Podhoretz and Horowitz.[22]

Staughton Lynd, chairman of the 1965 "March on Washington", was asked by Russell to participate in the tribunal and rejected the invitation. Lynd's objections and criticism of the Tribunal were based on the fact that Russell planned to investigate only non-North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front conduct, sheltering Hanoi from any criticism for their behaviour. Lynd wrote that "in conversation with the emissary who proffered the invitation, I urged that the alleged war crimes of any party to the conflict should come before the Tribunal. After all, I argued, a "crime" is an action that is wrong no matter who does it. Pressing my case, I asked, "What if it were shown that the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam tortures unarmed prisoners?" The answer, as I understood it, was, "Anything is justified that drives the imperialist aggressor into the sea." I declined the invitation to be a member of the Tribunal."[19]


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