Russell Tribunal exposes futility of relying on UN

Ban Ki-moon with Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defense secretary. Waiting for the United Nations to deliver justice for the Palestinians is pointless.

RD Ward Department of Defense

The fourth and final session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine was a study in contrasts. Silver-haired European diplomats mingled with New York street protesters wearing the Palestinian checkered scarf or kuffiyeh. Volunteers translated French to English to broadcast to the room, and academic English to colloquial English to broadcast to the internet. White men argued over the best means by which to fit a crime with a name, and people of color reflected on the crimes that had robbed them of the ability to have a name. A tribunal with few legal trappings deliberated Palestine with few Palestinians.

The previous sessions of the Russell Tribunal had explored the complicity of the European Union (Barcelona), the complicity of corporations (London), and the applicability of the term “apartheid” (Cape Town). With the final session, the Tribunal promised to go “back to the root of the conflict” by focusing on “UN and US responsibility in the denial of the Palestinian right to self-determination.”

While the “witnesses” were mainly international law experts at home in the world of inter-governmental bodies and narrowly-defined protocols for advancing an action, the majority of attendees (and indeed, of the local organizers who worked countless hours to make the event a success) were oriented toward grassroots activism operating largely outside of such channels. This particular contradiction resonated throughout the entire event. All through the proceedings, there was a distinct sense that different segments of those assembled were processing all of the same facts, and yet arriving at radically different conclusions.

Much of the discourse was taken up with an ad nauseum enumeration of unenforced or vetoed resolutions, empty rhetoric, toothless bureaucracies, and dead-end channels for seeking legal redress. And yet it often seemed as though the very experts explaining the myriad ways in which the United Nations and all its organs were so thoroughly broken had yet to relinquish the idea that these remained the most viable mechanisms for achieving justice for Palestinians.

Grassroots Palestinian activists and their allies are no longer accustomed to such a dismal view of their own agency. It was only when we shifted the bulk of our focus outside of the channels of polite lobbying and international diplomacy and began to apply direct pressure to the enablers of Israeli apartheid that we at last began seeing tangible, consistent results. Corporate enablers in particular have proven to be the most vulnerable, bound as they are to abandon an activity if it can be made to be unprofitable.

As such, this talk of a movement for justice that is based primarily upon engagement with a broken system sounds to the ears of most contemporary activists to be a major step backward. While we have remained engaged and will remain so, even deriving the occasional “victory” (such as the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the illegality of Israel’s apartheid wall), substantive change will remain unobtainable through these channels until we have achieved the ability to pressure UN member states on a significant scale; Peter Hansen, a former head of the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) conceded this in his own remarks before the Tribunal). Boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns against non-state actors complicit in Israeli apartheid will play a vital role in advancing us to that stage.

Despite the inclinations of activists focused on BDS, one of the key constituencies which the Russell Tribunal on Palestine seeks to influence is clearly comprised of individuals who remain staunch believers in achieving change by engaging with and/or seeking to reform the current United Nations system. To impart a clear understanding of the massive challenges (if not outright futility) of this proposition is a valuable, if not vital, contribution to the movement.

If the the organizers of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine did make any mistakes in planning the structure of the four sessions, they were primarily mistakes of sequence. Why should the applicability of “apartheid” and complicity of corporations be bracketed by the roles of the EU, US, and UN? Why make the discussion of corporate complicity, the arena in which the vast majority of the effective and encouraging activism is transpiring, only the penultimate item? Why conclude with an exploration of the most thoroughly broken mechanisms for pursuing redress?

The most frustrating moment for myself personally, as an activist, was the Tribunal’s hours-long deliberation over terminology, particularly the question of whether Israel’s policies on Palestinians would be better characterized by the terms “genocide” or “sociocide” (the latter of which has no formal legal definition). While there were important legal arguments being made about the implications of the use of one term over another, the descent into such bickering over semantics (to the point of lawyer Michael Mansfield actually yelling at Palestinian political scientist Saleh Abdeljawad) made this diplomacy-based discourse seem all the more diversionary and irrelevant.

My take-away:

Some activists will choose to work within the broken UN framework. This is good, because someone has to. We can’t simply disengage now and reengage later when we’re stronger. Certain UN organs, like UNRWA, play a vital role in addressing the basic needs of large numbers of Palestinians, and others, like the children’s fund UNICEF, have actually figured into successful BDS initiatives against corporate targets attempting to exploit them as a philanthropic fig leaf.

Others will eschew these channels in favor of pressuring non-state actors and helping to accelerate the ongoing shift of public opinion in support of Palestinian rights, both of which are essential to developing the ability to effective pressure UN member states later on.

Still others will opt for a hybrid approach with one foot in each world, like Phyllis Bennis, who has served both as co-chair of the UN-based International Coordinating Network on Palestine and on the steering committee of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, the recent work of which has been heavily focused on BDS.

As for terminology, I’m less concerned about finding the perfect descriptor for Israel’s ongoing assault on the lives and rights of Palestinians than I am about fighting it. The terms that matter most to me begin with B, D, and S.




Not only should BDS continue but companies,corporations and govenments that are Palestine friendly should be supported and promoted.
This provides alternatives.

Abraham Greenhouse's picture

In focusing my post on the general themes and structure of this session, I neglected to sufficiently emphasize the incredible amount of work that clearly went into it. From translation to travel arrangements to media to registration (and much more), an army of volunteers spent countless hours laboring to ensure that the event ran smoothly. The jurists and witnesses threw themselves into their work as well, providing invaluable insights and stimulating discussion that will continue for a long time to come (hopefully while we’re also boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning things).

Be sure to check out the Tribunal’s final report from the session as well.


BDS ALL THE WAY!!! When Israel violates human rights it must be criticized and punished just like any other country. No double standards. The U.S. must end its so-called "special" relationship with Israel, and enforce human rights doctrines worldwide. BDS is the way!


How then might BDS become more widely public every day. And what other non-violent acts may support the production of a similar economic force result.

More importantly, how else may it be seen by the funded public process as possible to bring every purveyor of violence to a publicly demanded halt.


The RToPNYC was a great sucess in terms of spelling out how the UN and the US facilitate the Zionist colonial project in Palestine and its crimes against the Palestinian people, but that is something that most, if not everyone, in attendance and the up to 300 people who watched online already knew.

In the wake of Lebanon, Gaza and the Flotilla atacks and all the public outrage they generated it should be clear to everyone that the political establishment is will never hold Israel to account, not even when it commits serious war crimes in full public view.

BDS is the way to go but for it to be effective it must focus on the areas where Israel is most vulnerable. The RToP missed a golden opportunity to push the BDS issue out of our Palestine solidarity bubble and make it an issue of concern to the 70,000 jewellery outlets across the US and the 180,000 others worldwide. The US is the most important diamond market in the world, acounting for 50% of global diamond sales. Fifty percent of the diamonds sold in America are cut and polished in Israel where, as we know from evidence given to the London session of the RToP, the diamond industry generates over $1 billion p.a in funding for the Israeli military.

Diamonds that fund a nuclear-armed belligerent regime guilty of war crimes are not conflict-free as jewellers are claiming - they are blood diamonds. The UN-mandated Kimberley Process (KP), chaired by the US in 2012, is facilitating the trade in Israeli blood diamonds which evade the human rights strictures applied to rough diamonds. As diamonds account for 30% of Israel's exports, the RToP in NYC - the diamond capital of the world - should have focused a little time on this issue. It would not have gone unnoticed as the KP struggles to agree on a new definition of a "conflict diamond" that will ban diamonds which fund violence by government forces in Africa while continuing to allow diamonds that fund Israeli war crimes to evade regulation.


There is a long and strong tradition in the American Jewish community of supporting and working for human rights and justice for oppressed people. Jews were actively involved in the efforts to Abolish Slavery, to support Womens Suffrage, build strong Trade Unions, protect Civil Rights, oppose War, begin Nuclear Disarmament, and we do support Palestinian Self-Determination. This tradition and history helps explain why the international campaign to Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel is so popular in the American Jewish community. The loudmouth bigots and racists are in the minority; most of we American Jews support human rights for ALL people,including Palestinians! Let's all build the BDS campaign and make it even stronger! Long Live Nonviolent Revolution!


For one thing, supporters of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions campaign are not YET vocal enough or well organized enough, but things are building up into a greater, even more popular movement. We are getting our act together, and we will surely win; after all, THEY only have the guns and money, but nothing else! MIKE LEVINSON


I wonder if you can suggest a Time line. When the big money desires a certain result, it never seems as though Time is an issue. I wonder what it will take for decency, and respect for human life and welfare to hold the same strength in human affairs.


The issue of Palestinian human rights and self-determination is very urgent, especially considering the tight grip on Gaza right now, but revolutions often take a long time. This may not be consolation for the victims who are weary and angry, but history teaches us that fundamental changes may not happen as quickly as we would like or even expect. How many years did it take for Gandhi and others to free India? For Mandela and the ANC et. al. to free South Africa? For the Vietnamese to fight off colonialism and then U.S. imperialism? Some of my elders and mentors have taught me that "one must be in it for the long haul". Many of my greatest activist friends and heroes were World War 2 draft resisters who stuck it out through the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, No-Nukes, No Aid to the Contras etc. and remained active up through their 90th birthdays and beyond. As Utah Philips said, "I am building a boat I may never sail on, but the boat will sail some day." Good luck to all!


Your comment is perhaps consoling, if we may believe that the humanly respectful result is inevitable, yet when we can see that inevitability in a world so immensely and newly interconnected, it becomes easier to suggest that the manners and methods of accomplishment that ruled the examples you gave need no longer apply.

When we are looking at Knowing can it be that our ability legitimizes mobilizing for the rendering of a comprehensive, coherent, collective polite demand. If that were possible to admit as an apt suggestion, it offers the opportunity and challenge perhaps to engage in a different form of activity than has ever been utilized before.

Considering the matter in these terms results in little more than a rendering of Permission to act in ways no one may have ever acted before. But those variegated ways DO become visible when we allow ourselves that Permission in such terms. Stepping outside the box of the dictates of history is not as hard to do as it may seem and doing so offers possibilities not visible within our conventional concepts of what is possible.

Abraham Greenhouse

Abraham Greenhouse's picture

Abraham Greenhouse is a longtime Palestine solidarity activist based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter as @grinhoyz.