PoLAR – Desire for Justice, Desire for Law: An Ethnography of Peoples’ Tribunals

« Desire for Justice, Desire for Law: An Ethnography of Peoples’ Tribunals » – Symposium edited by Chowra Makaremi and Pardis Shafafi in PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review in N°42 Issue 2 – November 2019

PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review is the journal of the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology (APLA), published by the American Anthropological Association.

Publicized in 2000 through the Women’s International Tribunal on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery, civil society tribunals—also called tribunals of opinion, symbolic tribunals, peoples’ tribunals, citizens’ tribunals—are the most common form of prosecution projects in situations of impunity, and challenge the fundamental premise that the law is the exclusive domain of states. They take the form of legal prosecutions and truth commissions run by prominent international law practitioners, public figures, and activists. Yet they do not have any institutional mandate or enforcement capacity.

Multiplying projects of peoples’ tribunals in contexts of impunity are interesting at several levels: first, new forms of collective mobilizations question core issues of legitimacy and sovereignty in the production of law; second, productions of collective memories and narratives of violence use legal frameworks and terminology and yet are outside of institutional apparatuses; and third, sources of empirical data are used when on-site investigations prove difficult or unfeasible, and thus contribute to the debate of ethnographies in “off-limits” zones.

Engaging in a multidisciplinary conversation, this symposium aims at an empirical, comparative approach to peoples’ tribunals through the multiple levels on which they act: of the defiant telling of public secrets through testimony, the establishment of a creative space of resistance, and of shaping and developing a new understanding of international law. What are the outcomes of these legal mobilizations and arenas? How is one to understand the gap between the desire for justice they perform and the limitations that are carried within these unofficial legal projects? As the contributions enlighten, echo, and enrich one another, they also bring new insights, as a whole, on how peoples’ tribunals challenge the relationships among law, justice, and power; the definitions of political and moral subjectivities; and the boundaries of engaged fieldwork. Giovanni Prete and Christel Cournil investigate the International Monsanto Tribunal, organized in 2016 in Brussels, to address a double challenge of impunity: that of a private transnational corporation accused of inducing ill-health and environmentally damaging toxins through its business, and that of transgressions that as yet have no legal qualifications—advocated through a new legal concept of “ecocide.” Nicky Rousseau reflects on the Speak Out Against Poverty commissions set up by local communities throughout South Africa in parallel to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the aim of bringing back into conversation the economic inequalities, structural violence, and longer term socio-economic colonial domination within the debate of apartheid violence and rights violations. Shahla Talebi looks at the Iran Tribunal against state crimes held in The Hague in 2012 as the inverted reflection of a very different “space of law”: the revolutionary courts as chilling stagings of “popular justice” that conveyed the culture of terror in postrevolution Iran. In this heuristic juxtaposition, Talebi reminds us how the violence and injustices that the people’s tribunal exposed were “themselves part of the way State legality operate[d]” (Merry 2016).

Are peoples’ tribunals counter-hegemonic projects? What does the concept of hegemony bring to the understanding of these political experiences and their inherent paradoxes? This symposium explores these paradoxes not to assess popular justice initiatives in terms of their legitimacy or achievements, which are undoubtedly worthy and valuable in their own right, but rather to consider these impasses as indicative of some major challenges of political resistance in contemporary times.

Makaremi, C., & Shafafi, P. (2019). Introduction. PoLAR, 42: 191-209. doi:10.1111/plar.12314


Staging International Environmental Justice: The International Monsanto Tribunal
Prete, G. and Cournil, C. (2019), Staging International Environmental Justice: The International Monsanto Tribunal. PoLAR, 42: 191-209. doi:10.1111/plar.12310

Opinions tribunals dealing with environmental issues have multiplied over the last several years as a consequence of the rise of international environmental law and its promotion by international networks. Drawing on an ethnographic investigation of one of those tribunals—the International Monsanto Tribunal— this article reflects on the many objectives they often pursue: strengthening political positions, publicizing environmental and health social struggles, and promoting legal theories. In our case, we show that articulating those objectives involved intense work to stage the tribunal’s legitimacy. We analyze this work and how it was put to the test during and after the sessions of the tribunal. Our article broadly suggests that environmental opinion tribunals are political arenas where rights and identities are not only asserted but also negotiated and legitimized.


Speak Out on Poverty: Hearing, Inaudibility, and Citizenship in Post‐Apartheid South Africa
Rousseau, N. (2019), Speak Out on Poverty: Hearing, Inaudibility, and Citizenship in Post‐Apartheid South Africa. PoLAR, 42: 210-225. doi:10.1111/plar.12315

In 1998, Speak Out on Poverty held hearings across South Africa shortly after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) completed eighteen months of highly publicized, nationwide hearings at which victims testified. Speak Out challenged the TRC’s focus on overt political violations, seen to occlude forms of structural violence central to apartheid’s policy and practice, as well as longer legacies of colonialism. Reading Speak Out alongside the TRC puts pressure on supposed differences between official truth commissions or tribunals and those run by civil society. Discussing Speak Out in relation to the TRC signaled more than a set of comparisons. In a time of transition, Speak Out spoke from within and against the noise of the TRC. It aimed to make poverty and inequality the nation’s priority rather than reconciliation, or at least to challenge notions of reconciliation that did not have inequity and poverty at its center. This intention failed to come to fruition, and Speak Out seemed paradoxically inaudible in public debate. In exploring this conundrum, this article considers particular strategic and organizational choices by Speak Out. These shaped the discursive terrain of operations and subjectivities in ways that unintentionally enabled inaudibility and constrained the organizers’ transformative intentions.


Ethnography of Witnessing and Ethnography as Witnessing: Topographies of Two Court Hearings
Talebi, S. (2019), Ethnography of Witnessing and Ethnography as Witnessing: Topographies of Two Court Hearings. PoLAR, 42: 226-243. doi:10.1111/plar.12316

In this article, I attend to two forms of hearings (or nonhearings) in two distinctive courts of law, both involving the persecution of Iranian dissidents in the 1980s. Drawing on my ethnographic and archival research, inside and outside of Iran, I ponder the conditions of possibility of confessions/testimonies and their affects and after‐lives. The first case involves the Islamic Republic’s televised trials of a group of leftist prisoners. The second one is a symbolic court in The Hague, known as the Iran Tribunal, organized by some dissidents in diaspora, where witnesses testified against the Iranian regime. I meditate on the relationship between these two different spaces of the “law” in their differing milieus, and the divergent modes of speaking and hearing they render possible or impossible. I contemplate the kinds of ethical subjectivities they produce or shatter and reflect on the conditions and modes of speaking and hearing in relation to these topographies of coercive and sympathetic courts.

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Off-Site (August 31, 2020). PoLAR – Desire for Justice, Desire for Law: An Ethnography of Peoples’ Tribunals. Off-Site. Retrieved July 21, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/sid3

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