Russell Tribunal exposes futility of relying on UN
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.
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.