Book Review: Regina Menachery Paulose (ed) People’s Tribunals, Human Rights and the Law. Searching for Justice

People’s Tribunals, Human Rights and the Law. Searching for Justice. Edited By Regina Menachery Paulose. London and New York: Routledge, 2020. pp. 216. £36.99 paper.

The American international criminal law attorney, Regina Menachery Paulose’s edited collection reflects theoretical deliberations about, and the experience of, people’s tribunals. Contributing authors include experts who participated in tribunals, lawyers well-versed in international law and violations of human rights, as well as activists. Thus, the knowledge and experiences of the authors are not limited to American academic work. The editor herself was involved in two tribunals prior to the book’s publication. The international ensemble of contributors have been acting in transnational spaces in regard to their work and activism. Moreover, the publication crisscrosses different fields of academic work and activism. The collection should be of interest to those who are searching for effective ways of addressing atrocities in the past, seeking justice for those who have suffered and are fighting impunity and supporting processes for societal transitions. In fact, it would be of interest to anyone interested in international criminal law, human rights violations, environmental and transitional justice, including concepts of human rights and justice beyond Eurocentric views.

The 1966-67 Russell tribunal on war crimes in Vietnam, named after the Chair, the British intellectual and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell, was organized and backed by European and US-American intellectuals and members of the civil societies. It is often seen as the first people’s tribunal, but as the contributor, Zachary D. Kaufmann, points out, the practice is much older. In 1933, private citizens organized a tribunal in London, named the Commission of Inquiry into the Origins of the Reichstag Fire, and in 1937 the hearings of the Preliminary Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made Against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials in Mexico announced its ‘not-guilty’ verdict in New York (168). The website of the international NGO, Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, (established in 1979) states that “[t]o date [2022], the Tribunal has held 49 Sessions around the world”.

The first chapter, written by the editor, introduces the history, scope, type, and thematic fields of the tribunals since the 1960s. Paulose notes that practice has evolved, with the perspectives and participation of victims/survivors and their movements progressively moving to the center. However, there is still work to do for the full implementation of the international victim groups’ Basic Principles and Guidelines, as Paulose outlines. Taking into account the broad range of topics addressed by people’s tribunals, Paulose defines them as “movements that are created for the purpose of examining rights violations whereby the civil society believes the violations have not been formally recognized or addressed by the state, community, or legal system.” (2). People’s tribunals differ from other instruments addressing wrongdoings in the now well-established field of Transitional Justice. Although they use the language and procedures of international law discourse, in contrast to recognized transitional justice tribunals, such as the International Criminal Court, people’s tribunals have no formal legal basis, and are “not an entity under international law” (24), and thus, sentences cannot be implemented, and those convicted will not be punished.

As Benjamin Duerr explains in his contribution, people’s tribunals address a broad ambit of atrocities and wrongdoings. According to the statute of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, not only are state crimes in focus, but also wrongdoing by private groups and organizations. Furthermore, their investigations and procedures aim usually go beyond scrutinizing the responsibility of individuals, focusing on the societal and economic structures that enable atrocities (24), and crimes often unnoticed by formal institutions (30). Ronald Rogo discusses the differences and similarities between people’s tribunals and Truth Commissions (TCs), focusing in particular on the TC established in Kenya in 2002. TCs are influential transitional justice institutions, often promising “reconciliation between the perpetrators and the victims, enabling the country to move forward together” (45). However, the Kenyan TC had no real commitment to political change, and is, from the perspective of Rogo, “an example of a mock process that was conducted to meet the demands of the international community” (53). The author concludes that people’s tribunals and TCs are different instruments and points out that TCs are funded and controlled by the state and thus, “they can also be used to whitewash the political players” (56). He argues that popular support is necessary for effectiveness.

All contributors discuss the possibilities and limitations of people’s tribunals to achieve justice in societies after violent pasts. In the concluding chapter, Shadi Sadr evaluates the effectiveness of tribunals and discusses future strategies and ideas. Her contribution is very helpful in making scholars as well as activists aware of the role and opportunities of such tribunals to address mass atrocities and create chances of broader societal processes of reconciliation and justice. Sadr states, that people’s tribunals promise “a more inclusive system of law or a reclamation of the law” (178). However, they have a “paradoxical nature” as the language of international law is used by the tribunals cannot be implemented as international law. Moreover, acting in the frame of the established international law risks soothing the pain created by violence, instead of bringing structural changes towards a just society. She agrees with Andrew Byrnes and Gabrielle Simm that the “ideal tribunal should ‘not only engage in holding states and others accountable informally”, but should, “also articulate claims about the right of civil society to own, interpret, and develop international law” (192).

This is essential for people’s tribunals aim to change the language of international law by accepting perspectives from the Global South. Marginalized perspectives are often based on different understandings of the relationship between individuals and communities, and frequently decenter humans in their concepts of the world. Thus, it is advisable, as Sadr recommends, to be aware of dissent among different understandings of people’s tribunal’s aims and practices and use professional communication and research as well as outreach strategies and follow up plans. In this vein, people’s tribunals can only successfully implement change if they are embedded in a variety of activities. Moreover, Sadr asks how socially supported tribunals can contribute to transforming the international legal order. At the same time, it should be asked how further instruments that address the aftermath of violence, committed by the state and other actors can be effectively linked to people’s tribunals and vice versa.

One can also get a good impression of the topics addressed in the book by listening to Jane Richards talk with Regina Menachery Paulose,

Katharina Hoffmann,

Independent scholar, Germany