The Russell Tribunal on Palestine: An International “Court” of Public Opinion?

Sushila Rao

In a move laden with mostly symbolic significance—yet potentially fraught with the likelihood of fomenting further ill will in a troubled region—the jury of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine recently published its final statement, concluding that “Israel subjects the Palestinian people to an institutionalized regime of domination amounting to apartheid as defined under international law.”

Article 2 of the 1973 Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of Apartheid contains a definition of the crime of apartheid—“which shall include similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practised in southern Africa”—as covering “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” It then lists the acts that fall within the ambit of the crime, which include: murder, torture, inhuman treatment and arbitrary arrest of members of a racial group; deliberate imposition of living conditions calculated to cause its physical destruction; legislative measures that discriminate in the political, social, economic and cultural fields; measures that divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate residential areas for racial groups; the prohibition of interracial marriages; and the persecution of persons opposed to apartheid.

An important caveat is required here: the Russell Tribunal is not—in spite of its nomenclature—a court in any legal or technical sense. The jury comprises not only legal experts, but also politicians and activists. In the late 1960s, Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre, among others, convened the first Russell Tribunal on Vietnam. Another Tribunal was convened on the issue of rights abuses in Latin America in the mid-1970s. Over the past year, the Tribunal has been convened once again, this time on the Palestine issue.

Supporters of the Tribunal point to its past record as showcasing the potential of a” grassroots”  tribunal to “yield sound moral and legal arguments that strengthen respect for the rule of law”.  One of the jurors on the Tribunal has stated that their findings essentially provide a “new basis for lobbying and advocacy”. Activists can use these findings to engender coherence and solidarity on an international level, comparable to the manner in which the anti-apartheid struggle leveraged enormous political and economic power to make South Africa a pariah state.

While activists and intellectuals have every right to disseminate information about oppressive living conditions or alleged violations of fundamental rights, others caution that likening the situation to the odious South African-style apartheid might amount to a counter-productive category mistake, and an “offensive” over-simplification of mutually shared distrust and prejudice; hence cementing Israeli sentiments of estrangement from—and persecution by—the international community.

They point out that as far as Arab Israelis are concerned, much of the separation is de facto or volitional, and not state-mandated, as it was South Africa. Even in the West Bank, opponents of the Tribunal’s decision cite security concerns as the reason behind building the alleged “apartheid wall,” rather than an institutionalized belief in the racial inferiority of Palestinians. It is also debatable whether one can prove—to a legally satisfactory standard, in any case—the specific intent to maintain “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group”, as required by Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.


Old Paper by