Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for 40 years. Since 2002, he has lived in Santa Barbara, California and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies; since 2005 he has chaired the board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. An interview with him follows.
Daniel Falcone: Can you tell me something about the Russell Tribunal on Palestine? What is its historical background and what is Bertrand Russell’s connection to this specific organization?
Richard Falk: The Russell Tribunal, also called the International War Crimes Tribunal, was established in 1967 on the initiative of Bertrand Russell, working in collaboration with the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. It was a response to the American-led war in Vietnam and tried to fill the institutional gap created by the inability of the UN to respond to a military intervention contrary to international law that was inflicting great suffering on the helpless civilian population of Vietnam, with the combat zone extended to Laos.
There were two sessions of the tribunal investigating a range of charges against the United States and its allies that included allegations of aggression, war crimes, and genocide. In all instances, the members of the tribunal (25 international moral authority figures, distinguished as progressive individuals) agreed unanimously that the allegations were well founded on the basis of extensive testimony by experts and witnesses, and as a result of documentation.
Bertrand Russell was personally involved with the organization and funding of the Russell Tribunal, which led in subsequent years to the founding of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal that operates out of Rome and has organized at least 20 inquiries into many controversial undertakings around the world over its period of existence. At the same time, the Russell Foundation in Brussels persists and has organized several events of its own in recent years, including an elaborate series of four sessions in different world cities dealing with charges directed at Israel for its mistreatment of the Palestinian people and abuse of their rights.
This approach to international criminal law, via spontaneous initiatives in civil society, has been criticized as one-sided and without formal status and defended as overcoming what have been called “crimes of silence” and providing accurate narratives of wrongful behavior in defiance of human rights and international law.
The historical inspiration foundation for the Russell approach resulted from the failure of the victorious powers in World War II to follow through on the kind of accountability imposed on surviving leaders of Germany and Japan in 1945. Often quoted in support of this assertion is the statement made at the Nuremberg Trials by Justice Robert H. Jackson, the chief prosecutor acting on behalf of the United States: “If certain acts and violation are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. We are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others that we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”
The deeper truth is, of course, that this is precisely what the United States did at Nuremberg, and ever since – namely, creating mechanisms for the prosecution of others for international crimes while obtaining impunity for itself, its friends, and those who act on its behalf. The establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2002 has not altered this basic reality of double standards.
The Russell Tribunal and all subsequent initiatives of a similar kind have tried to correct this situation, at least symbolically; first of all by acting only in situations of widespread moral outrage. Secondly, by acting in those cases where governmental and inter-governmental institutions are incapacitated by geopolitical obstacles; and thirdly, by acting with a lively realization that their “legal” pronouncements are symbolic and unenforceable and yet possess moral weight and often provide the most comprehensive and reliable documentation with respect to controversial international policies.
The press along with legal pundits, authors and research institutions are now dealing with the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge. Now the dust has somewhat settled, what do we know about the “holy state’s” seven-week bombardment of Gaza? Are there any analogs for how it was treated in the US Media?
Operation Protective Edge is the code name given by Israel to the third major military operation carried out in Gaza during the course of the last six years. Israel justified the attack as a response to rockets fired from Gaza, and later, from tunnels that were discovered to connect Gaza with Israel posing a challenge to Israeli security. The proper time line is drawn more fully and must include the Israeli disproportionate and manipulative response to a criminal incident in June 2014 that involved the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli settler youths, who were hitchhiking in the West Bank near Hebron.
The Netanyahu government immediately attributed the crime to Hamas and launched a huge campaign of recrimination that was carried out in the West Bank, resulting in the death of several Palestinians and the detention of several hundred others. This response was done in ways that were deliberately provocative to Hamas and help explain why Hamas fired rockets in retaliation, leading to a recurrence of major violence that their leadership had repeatedly tried to avoid.
Operation Protective Edge was the longest of the three large-scale military assaults on Gaza, producing over 2,200 deaths, 11,000 injuries and widespread devastation. Israel lost 71 individuals, of whom 65 were members of the IDF, with 469 IDF members and 261 civilians wounded, while at least 75 percent of the Palestinian casualties were civilian, including 513 children.
This breakdown of the casualties suggests that Israel was guilty of “state terrorism,” as well as aggression, in launching such at attack on a densely populated civilian area, giving the inhabitants no option to leave or seek sanctuary outside the combat zone. Such a conclusion is reinforced by Israel’s documented refusal over the course of recent years to pursue a diplomatic option that was put on the table repeatedly by Hamas leaders.
The failure of the UN or governments to respond by offers of protection to the Palestinians led to the convening of the Brussels Tribunal in September 2014, at which a distinguished jury of conscience heard a wide range of testimonies about Protective Edge and issued an assessment that concluded that Israel was guilty of genocidal behavior and crimes against humanity, but that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the attack itself qualified from a legal viewpoint as “genocide.”
The media treated Protective Edge in a manner similar to the two earlier Israel military operations, basically accepting the Israeli version of the timeline that locates its military operation as a response to Hamas rockets without any consideration of Israel’s prior provocations. At the same time, the visual representation of the one-sided assault and the casualties being generated by such tactics did create a negative backlash in public opinion. This has produced a big surge of support for the BDS Campaign worldwide, including many notable divestment initiatives on American college campuses. It also led the UN Human Rights Council to appoint, over objections by the United States and Israel, a Commission of Inquiry to examine war crimes allegations directed at Israel and Hamas. This COI is expected to report its finding in coming months, but it is doubtful that it will fare any better than did the prior COI, appointed to examine the Israel attacks on Gaza of 2008-09 that had the code name Cast Lead. This earlier effort led to the notorious “Goldstone Report” that did extensively document findings of war crimes, but was unable to implement its recommendations due to an American-led pushback that buried the report.
When the Gaza war ended, and Israel, Egypt and the US arranged to rebuild the region that the US and Israel had destroyed, was there an even deeper humanitarian crisis developing since resistance groups such as Hamas were being threatened in exchange for the so-called benevolence?
Naomi Klein has taught us that predatory capitalism in its current phase operates globally to feast off natural and political disasters that are experienced as humanitarian catastrophes by the people living within the affected country. Gaza may be the prime example of this pattern, having been destroyed repeatedly to varying degrees and then finding itself the beneficiary of donor pledges, often unfulfilled, of disaster relief. The situation has been complicated by Israeli efforts to extend the punishment of the people of Gaza by greatly hampering the flow of building and other materials needed for reconstruction efforts to proceed in a normal manner.
In this respect, the post-disaster reality of Gaza is the reproduction of military disaster with critical shortages, power outages, untreated sewage and shortages of shelter in the midst of winter’s inclement weather resulting from the Israeli blockade.
In effect, the ending of a military operation does not bring peace and relief to Gaza, but the continuation of war by other means, with less dramatic results, but with the ordeal of this kind of isolation and harassment afflicting the entire civilian population with accompanying physical and psychological hardships.