Monday, October 8, 2012

Russell Tribunal in the East Village II: "We need this thing to go viral!"

The Cooper Union is particularly proud that on 27th February 1860 Abraham Lincoln delivered one of his most famous speeches there, perhaps the one that resulted in his election as US president. One sentence is singled out and printed on a plaque in the building’s foyer: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.

In the course of the fourth session of the Russell Tribunal I reflected on this quotation repeatedly, and came to the conclusion that its fine sentiments are as dangerous as they are uplifting. For is it not the USA’s unshakeable conviction that it is always right, that being right is in fact its manifest destiny, that has led it so consistently to abuse its might? Aggressive self-righteousness – George W. Bush’s “I know how good we are” – is one of the factors that have placed the USA in the dock at the Cooper Union.

The US and Israeli governments, incidentally, were invited to send representatives to the Tribunal. Neither self-righteous power was righteous enough to respond.
The second day of the RToP was so packed that I must confine my attentions to a few contributions. The full proceeds can anyway be found on the RToP’s website.

Once again, the session began with a highlight. Although Palestinian-Canadian Diana Buttu, a former legal advisor to the PLO, chose to jettison her prepared text and speak ad lib, her speech came across as one of the most focussed and structured contributions of the weekend, as well as being moving and passionate.

The goal of the “peace process”, under American tutelage, has been to cement Zionist policy. From 1967 until the Reagan era, the colonial settlements were defined as “illegal”. Under Clinton they ceased to be illegal and became “obstacles to peace”. Under Obama they have ceased to be either illegal or obstacles to peace, whereas “continued settlement activity” is defined as “illegitimate”. This transformation of illegality into legality typifies US policy. She mocked the common trope that “we all know what a solution looks like”, viz, a two-state arrangement with territorial adjustments. “Do we?” she asked rhetorically, pointing out that the incorporation if illegal colonial settlements into Israel “proper” would merely constitute a further massive redrawing of borders in Israel’s favour.

Buttu concluded by thanking the Russell Tribunal “for bringing Palestine to the USA”. Although bringing Palestinians to the USA is just as fraught as difficulties, there are so many brilliant Palestinian intellectuals based here (Joseph Massad, Rashid Khalidi, Ali Abunimah are names that spring to mind) that it is difficult to understand why, apart from Buttu and in the absence of Huwaida Arraf (unfortunately prevented by illness from participating), there was only one other Palestinian contributor to the Tribunal.

This was the historian Saleh Hamayel, also known as Abd al-Jawad or Abdul-Jawad, a confusion of nomenclature that he related to that between (jury member) “Dennis Banks” and “Naawakamig”. Billed to discuss the relevance to Palestine of the concept of sociocide, Hamayel, a fiery orator, suggested that it replace apartheid which he deemed inapplicable to the Palestinian situation because it is not strictly comparable to apartheid South Africa.

This gave rise to an extraordinary moment in the ensuing question-and-answer session when jury member Michael Mansfield QC demanded that Hamayel provide the official UN definition of apartheid, repeatedly interrupting him when he attempted to reply. Mansfield’s substantive point was correct – the Capetown session of the RToP had gone to great lengths to establish that the relevance of apartheid to Israel/Palestine consists not in analogies with South Africa (although such analogies exist), but in the applicability to both regimes of the Apartheid Convention. However, while it was shocking enough to see an expert witness being attacked by a jury member, it was doubly shocking that the victim was a Palestinian; cries of “shame” were audible from the audience. Fortunately Hamayel, who had survived repeated imprisonment without trial by the Israelis, did not seem particularly dismayed.

The legendary Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, who first framed the concept of sociocide, spoke to define it: “the killing of a society’s capacity to survive and reproduce itself”. In subsequent discussion it was agreed (although possibly not by the slightly cryptic Galtung) that while the concept undoubtedly has descriptive power in relation to the destruction of Palestinian society, the fact that it is currently not defined as a crime under international law and is anyway subsumed under the definition of genocide limits its relevance to the case at hand.

Russell Means, “the most famous American Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse”, was to have spoken on The Sociocide of the Native Americans, but at the last moment this former supporter of the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras was replaced via skype by Ward Churchill, an equally controversial figure among native Americans. He appeared to be saying forceful things about the relationship between genocide and sociocide, but unfortunately a technological gremlin caused his words to become increasingly incomprehensible.

Other gremlins interfered with the day’s most eagerly anticipated speaker, Noam Chomsky. Laryngitis prevented his turning up in the flesh, while his self-confessed technical incompetence meant that, in contradiction to Means, we could hear him clearly but see on-screen only a ghostly outline of his featureless head surmounted by that enviable mop of white hair.

Chomsky’s Retrospect and Prospect concentrated mainly on the former, and on that level was comprehensive and incisive. His final words, however, were “the prospects are grim”, after which he lapsed into stubborn silence. The somewhat gothic nature of Chomsky’s overall performance cast a pall of gloom over many audience members, but two sprightly contributions helped to dispel it.

Theologian David Wildman displayed a welcome and irrepressible sense of humour although his subject, Christian Zionism and the Israel Lobby, was potentially one of the most depressing imaginable. Having usefully linked the Israel Lobby (of which Christian Zionists are a major component) to Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex, he listed seven nefarious traits characteristic of Christian Zionism: it is dualistic (good versus evil – “I know how good we are”), provides a religious apology for US/Israeli militarism as part of God's plan, sees truth as based on belief rather than facts, provides a theological apology for US imperial/corporate power, has an insatiable need for official enemies (czarists, communists, Muslims), considers all pro-peace and pro-justice groups to be enemies, and advocates the most extreme forms of right-wing populism. He was severely critical of mainstream (“liberal”) Christianity for its failure to condemn Christian Zionism unequivocally, and (prodded by jury member Mairead Corrigan) concluded that when the Church allies itself with power, “just war theory” is an all too natural consequence.

Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies delivered the most exhilarating speech of the day, one involuntarily spiced by a Freudian slip of the tongue when she described Kofi Annan as “former Secretary General of the United States”. While she catalogued a woeful litany of US abuses of the UN, she also listed a succession of hopeful developments such as the increased independence of Latin American countries and their willingness to espouse the Palestinian cause, and the unexpected (if vain) rebellion of delegates at the recent Democratic Convention when called upon to reinstate language describing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in violation of international law. Asserting that international civil society campaigns focussing on a single issue were more effective than a multiplicity of national campaigns on separate issues, she recommended the multinational Veolia as an appropriate target.
On Monday morning, 8th October, at the Church Center for the United Nations directly opposite the United Nations building, a press conference was held at which Michael Mansfield read out the “Executive Summary of the Findings of the Fourth Session of the Russell Tribunal”. Here are the most relevant conclusions:

The Tribunal finds that Israel’s ongoing colonial settlement expansion, its racial separatist policies, as well as its violent militarism would not be possible without the US’s economic, military, and diplomatic support…

It is the opinion of this Tribunal that the US has committed the following violations of international and US law:

By enabling and financing Israel’s violations of international humanitarian and human rights norms, the US is guilty of complicity in international wrongful acts…

By obstructing accountability for violations of the Geneva Conventions, the US has failed to meet its obligations as a High Contracting Party…

In continuing to provide economic support for settlement expansion, the US is also in violation of the International Court of Justice’s jurisprudence…

By stonewalling an international resolution to the conflict by abusing its veto power within the Security Council, the US is in violation of several provisions of the UN Charter…

By failing to condition military aid to Israel… on its compliance with human rights norms and strict adherence to the law of self-defence, the US is in violation of its own domestic law.

…[T]he UN’s failure to take action proportionate to the duration and severity of Israel’s violations of international law…, and by not exhausting all peaceful means of pressure available to it, the UN does not comply with the obligations that States have conferred on [it]. …[B]y its failure to act more strongly than it does, the UN violates international law. The effect of these failures is to undermine the rule of law and the integrity and legitimacy of the institutions of international law.

The lack of concrete UN action against Israel constitutes an internationally wrongful act… [T]he UN must stop its wrongful omission and compensate for the damage suffered by Palestine.

In conclusion, the Tribunal proposed that change can be achieved by

1.      1. The mobilization of international public opinion… via the various manifestations of civic society:
a.      Networks, movements with particular emphasis upon the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, trade unions and other campaigns.
b.      Social media networks.

2.      2. Paying attention to the vital role of criminal and civil litigation against the perpetrators of the various violations before domestic courts.

3.      3. The referral of crimes committed in Palestine to the I[nternational]C[riminal]C[ourt] by the Security Council or by the acceptance of the Declaration made by the Palestinian government in January 2009 accepting the competence of the ICC.

4.      4. Reforming the UN itself, for example by the abolition of the veto by the five permanent members of the Security Council…
At this press conference 95-year-old Stephane Hessel, last surviving co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, exhorted the media to “BE BRAVE!” Over the next few days it will be interesting to see whether they, and particularly the mainstream media, are paying attention. The philosopher Bertrand Russell wished his Tribunal to “prevent the crime of silence”, but this noble aim can easily be subverted by the media which, more often than not, are complicit in the propagandistic aims of power.

I shall return in my next blog to this issue, and to the overall questions raised by the whole RToP project. Meanwhile, let superstar Roger Waters have the last word: 

“We need this thing to go viral!”

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