Voiceless no more: The Russell Tribunal on Kashmir

Civil society initiatives, such as Russell’s tribunal on Kashmir, enable human rights defenders and free societies to step up to the plate, hold criminal perpetrators to account even when international courts and organisations are paralysed.

Amidst the international community’s apathy and the ineptitude of international courts to take on genocide and war crimes, how can victims seek justice in a transparent public trial and get their voices heard? The answer to this question can sometimes take an unexpected, but effective, path. 

On 17-19 December 2021, the Russell Tribunal on Kashmir took place in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. This grassroots initiative is designed to shed light on war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by India in Kashmir. The choice of Sarajevo was not fortuitous, as it was the scene of genocide in the 1990s.

The Russell Tribunal is a concept of grassroots justice conceptualised by British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). The latter decided to hold the US government to account for the exactions and war crimes committed during the Vietnam War. Russell managed to convince other leading intellectuals, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Leilo Basso, to organise a people’s tribunal in 1966 to spread awareness and mobilise global opinion against war crimes and other blatant violations of international law. 

The International War Crimes Tribunal on Vietnam indeed lacked substantive legal authority, and the US administration ignored its findings. However, this initiative was ground-breaking from a non-judiciary vantage point. It managed to seize the narrative from American warmongers, empowering voiceless  Vietnamese victims and bringing their suffering to the fore. The counter-narrative brought forward by the Russell Tribunal was so powerful that this model was emulated by other victims of war crimes in Palestine, Bosnia, Iraq, and Latin America.

The Russell tribunal works in a way comparable to a truth commission. A panel of judges, chosen for their academic pedigree and personal integrity, listen to witnesses and experts who outline personal experiences and draw on facts and figures. The series of testimonies and expert presentations produce at the end sufficient evidence for the panel to consider.

The Russell Tribunal on Kashmir was organised jointly with leading human rights organizations and academics from Kashmir, Bosnia, and Italy. The tribunal involved 15 international judges, including renowned American Islamic scholar Omar Suleiman. Also among the judges was Jonathan A. C. Brown, associate professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, as well as Dalia Mujahid, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, DC. Concurrently, David Hearst, managing editor of Middle East Eye and former chief writer of the Guardian, participated in the proceedings, as did Bosnian author Hasan Nuhanovic, a survivor of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

The sessions focused on four themes: genocide, decolonisation, settler colonialism, and crimes against humanity. Several witnesses from Kashmir participated in the event. At the same time, experts cited reports by international human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, dwelling on previously conducted interviews with survivors on the ground.

In this event, an extremely gloomy picture emerged. Indian occupation has waged a military, political, economic, social, cultural, and moral war against the Kashmiris over the past 70 years. The Hindutva-inspired Indian settler-colonial actions in Kashmir have repeatedly breached international law on numerous accounts. 

Mass murder, excessive use of force, mass displacement, demographic re-engineering, forced disappearances, torture, mass rape, dispossession, home demolition, destruction of cultural heritage, restriction on all freedoms were all committed within a general climate of impunity. 

Many experts believe this situation has reached the threshold of genocide amidst the total defencelessness of the victims.

In the meantime, the Narendra Modi government in India manoeuvres to sweep the Kashmir tragedy under the carpet, using various PR smokescreen tactics to deflect attention from the dire situation there. Among the most common stratagems in this context are depicting human rights criticism as pro-Pakistani conspiracy and concealing the atrocities under the mantra of counterterrorism. Moreover, the Modi government imposes a total blackout on the situation, blocking foreign journalists and international human rights experts from even visiting Jammu and Kashmir. 

Russell’s Tribunal on Kashmir helped expose the genocide in Kashmir and publicly pulled the rug out from the old myths constructing India as the world’s biggest democracy. The testimonies and large body of evidence delivered during the tribunal’s proceedings reveal an increasingly rogue behaviour that totally breaches international law and basic principles of public morality. 

As Bertrand Russell declared in 1966, “may this Tribunal prevent the crime of silence.” Civil society initiatives, such as Russell’s tribunal on Kashmir, enable human rights defenders and free societies to step up to the plate, hold criminal perpetrators to account even when international courts and organisations are paralysed. Staying silent only emboldens extremist-led governments, which benefit from the general apathy to produce even more horrific acts of violence.  

This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the TRT World website.

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