“We do not represent any state power, nor can we compel the policy-makers responsible for crimes against the people of Vietnam to stand accused before us. We have no force majeure. The procedures of a trial are impossible to implement.”
With those words, the renowned philosopher Bertrand Russell opened the first Russell Tribunal on US war crimes committed in Vietnam in November 1966.
He immediately explained why these apparent limitations were in fact virtues: “We are free to conduct a solemn and historic investigation, uncompelled by reasons of state or other such obligations.”
A few months later, he opened the second session with the following words: “We are not judges. We are witnesses. Our task is to make mankind bear witness to these terrible crimes and to unite humanity on the side of justice in Vietnam.”
Move forward 45 years and replace the word Vietnam with the word Palestine, and his words could have been the perfect opening for the forthcoming third session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, which will take place in Cape Town, South Africa from 5 to 7 November.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who will open this session, will undoubtedly find as powerful words to explain to the people of the world why Palestine is still the issue.
Following the Barcelona and London sessions, which focused respectively on EU and corporate complicity, the South Africa session’s topic will be apartheid.
A stellar cast (including Alice Walker, Mairead Maguire, Michael Mansfield, Ronnie Kasrils, Stephane Hessel, Yasmin Sooka, Aminata Traore, Antonio Martin Pallin and Gisele Halimi) will observe the proceedings, acting as the jury, and after hearing more than twenty witnesses and legal experts over two days, will answer the question: “Are Israeli policies towards the Palestinian people in breach of the prohibition against apartheid under international law?”
The jury will hear from individuals who experienced South African apartheid, fought against it and won. Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of COSATU, the South African labor federation; anti-apartheid campaigner Winnie Mandela; international legal experts John Dugard and Max Du Plessis, and Professors Ran Greenstein and Pumla Gobodo Madizikela will give the audience an historical reminder of how the word apartheid came to be used in international law.
Understanding the past to overcome the present
The Russell Tribunal will take place in the symbolic venue of the District Six Museum that commemorates a Cape Town neighborhood bulldozed by the apartheid regime because it was racially mixed. Before focusing on Palestine, the tribunal will pay tribute to the South Africans who fought against white nationalism and racism in their country and who are now fighting for the rights of another people, the Palestinians, to be free.
It is also very important for our struggle, to better itself, to understand the past.
Edwin Arrison, an Anglican priest in South Africa who is currently the General Secretary of Kairos Southern Africa, and part of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine South Africa team, recently told me:
“International solidarity with us when we were most oppressed was key to us continuing the struggle against apartheid. It certainly encouraged us tremendously and we understand what this will mean for the Palestinian people. Small and large solidarity actions encouraged us: my own mother received hundreds of Christmas cards from children in Sweden when we were in prison in 1985. Remember, I was a Christian activist being held in prison in 1985 on Christmas day by a so-called Christian government!”
Arrison highlighted the importance of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine for the Palestinians but also for South African politics: “This tribunal comes at a time when our moral moorings seem to be coming unstuck, especially just after the Dalai Lama was not given a visa to attend Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s eightieth birthday. It will re-establish the fact that we as South Africans, especially those of us working in civil society, want to be in solidarity with the oppressed across the world.”
“When the Palestine people look at South Africa, they think about us differently than any other people on earth,” Arrison noted. “They think of us as family, as one with them. We now want to express this clearly, and there is no better platform than the Russell Tribunal to express this relationship. And we will repeat over and over again the words of Nelson Mandela: our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinian people.”
Mandela’s words should apply not only to South Africans, but to everyone in the world.
It is our role, as members of civil society, as an international solidarity movement, to make the case for Palestine a truly global movement. It is even more important for people who live in relative privilege in the West, people who have a voice, to scream loudly: “We are one, we are all in this together, united, we will not be free until Palestine is free.”
Frank Barat is a human rights activist and coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, which can be followed on Facebook at Facebook.com/russelltribunal. He has edited two books Gaza in Crisis (Haymarket/Penguin) with Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe and Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation (Pluto Press) with Asa Winstanley.