Russell Tribunal: Holding the International Community to Account

By Frank Barat

Today, the first session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RTP) will be held in Barcelona. The RTP is a peoples’ tribunal focusing not on Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law (IHL) such as the Fourth Geneva Convention, but on the obligations of the international community of signatory states which sustain and enable Israel’s continuous violations of international law.

Israel has violated more than 60 UN resolutions and countless legal and diplomatic calls to abide by international law in relation to the expansion of illegal settlements, denial of the right of return and the continuing occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Syrian Golan Heights. Dozens of reports, investigations and inquiries have produced evidence of alleged Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity, including massacres, collective punishment, home demolitions and extrajudicial killings on a cyclical scale over the past 62 years.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an advisory opinion finding Israel’s wall in the West Bank illegal and contrary to international law. The opinion was the key tenet of a 54-page document covering illegal settlements, the appropriation of natural resources and Israel’s violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention over the past 40 years, and reminded that IHL signatory states had an obligation "not to recognize the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall and not to render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created by such construction" and "to ensure compliance by Israel with international humanitarian law as embodied in that Convention."

The ruling sparked hopes in the Palestinian community and international solidarity movements that finally, not only had Israeli violations been legally judged but that the responsibilities of the states which enable Israeli impunity to continue would be put to the test. Six years and 500 kilometers of wall on, the continued construction of the wall casts a shadow over international law.

Or does it?

The RTP is an independent initiative which intends to generate a public literacy in international law and the possibilities for the rule of law if respected to dismantle and disempower the reproduction of the occupation as a military, cultural and economic movement.

Israel is an international entity, kept afloat not just financially and politically by international state partners and supporters, but "legally" by the continued legitimization of illegal acts and "facts on the ground" by these states. Israel’s most important market is not economic or military — it is the market of legitimacy, the permission it receives to normalize crimes against humanity to its own citizens and the international community. This can only happen with the complicity of non-IHL compliant states. The RTP is a way of publicly pointing the finger at these states and mobilizing public opinion towards holding them accountable for the ongoing human rights violations in Palestine.

The RTP is composed of four sessions. The first in Barcelona from 1-3 March, focuses on establishing whether the European Union as an entity has fulfilled its obligations under international law. At the end of 2010, a London session will scrutinize the complicity of corporations in normalizing and perpetuating Israel’s violations of international law as well as labor rights in Palestine/Israel. In mid-2011, a session in South Africa will examine the applicability of the crime of apartheid in the context of Israel. The final session will be held in the United States in late 2011 and will analyze the role of the US within the United Nations and decision-making processes on issues of violating international law.

The RTP is not a talking shop. For too long Israel has been the focus of international campaigning as if it alone is responsible for the oppression of the Palestinian people, and as if it has been acting alone. The RTP is about making the links between the crimes committed on the ground in Palestine and their international sponsors. If we want to popularize the notion of "normalization" of the occupation as a key obstacle to a just peace, then understanding how this "normalization" operates on an international legal level in the corridors of Washington, Brussels and London, as well as Tel Aviv, is a vital part of challenging it.

As Israeli think tanks and lobby groups bemoan the rise of "delegitimization" of Israel on a popular level within Europe, the actual, pragmatic delegitimization of Israeli criminal policies is still unrealized and unimplemented by countries that have not just the means but the obligations to do this. The RTP contributes to the growing movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions by popularizing the facts behind the arguments for why states have a responsibility to implement sanctions against Israel, and for companies to withdraw from illegal projects and for the public to boycott Israeli institutions, goods and the normalization of apartheid.

The Geneva Conventions were created and agreed upon by the countries of the world in 1949, under popular pressure, as the legal means to ensure that crimes against humanity committed around the world during the Second World War would never happen again. The principles and tenets of these laws are being violated by Israel continuously. These laws stem from liberation struggles and sacrifices of movements in the past, and are on our side, the side of the people. We can use these laws as guides to build the conditions for genuine justice and universal human rights, and a world based on solidarity and equality.

– Frank Barat is coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine ( A live streaming of the session can be viewed here: and a list of jury members as well as experts and witnesses participating in the tribunal is available for download (PDF). He contributed this article to (This article was first published at The Electronic Intifada, March 1, 2010)

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