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International War Crimes Tribunal Records TAM.098

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
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Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

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Historical/Biographical Note

Two International War Crimes Tribunals were convened by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, the first concerned with the Vietnam War and the second with repression in Latin America.

The first Tribunal was founded in 1966 by Bertrand Russell (1872-1970, an eminent British philosopher whose contributions to the understanding of the foundations of mathematics were crucial for twentith-century philosophy. Russell was awarded the Order of Merit in 1949 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. He was also well known for his social and political activism, having been imprisoned in 1918 for anti-war activity and in 1961 for his anti-nuclear weapons protests. His appeal in 1966 to convene an International War Crimes Tribunal to expose and condemn American actions in Vietnam was not a surprise, but was widely viewed with skepticism by the public and the press all over the world. Ralph Schoenmann, Russell's secretary, was even accused of manipulating the 94-year-old philosopher.

Russell was not deterred and was able to enlist as members of the Tribunal people from many countries and many backgrounds. Notable are the two presidents, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and the Yugoslavian jurist Vladimir Dedijer, as well as British historian Isaac Deutscher; Italian Socialist deputy (PSIUP), lawyer and journalist, Lelio Basso; American writer James Baldwin; and Cuban lawyer Melba Hernandez. Around twenty persons were appointed as judges for the Tribunal. Dozens of others took part in the preliminary work, consisting of collecting evidence and testimony on the Vietnam War. Teams were sent to North and South Vietnam, and also to Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Japan and the United States, from the founding of the Tribunal on November 25, 1966 to the beginning of the second session on November 20, 1967. Two public sessions were held by the first Tribunal – also known as the Bertrand Russell Tribunal on American War Crimes in Vietnam. The first took place in Stockholm, Sweden, from May 2nd to May 10th 1967. The second took place in Roskilde (30 km from Copenhagen), Denmark, from November 20th to December 1st 1967.

Bertrand Russell died in 1970, but Lelio Basso was approached, in October 1971, by Brazilian exiles who were anxious for a new Tribunal to be held on the repression in their country. Basso agreed and some of the members of the first Tribunal enrolled to be part of the second. This time, Lelio Basso served as president, and Vladimir Dedijer, Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marque, Belgian professor of International Law François Rigaux, and French historian Albert Soboul served as vice-presidents. Sartre was made an honorary member. Preparations for the Tribunal lasted two years, 1972-1973. Originally planned to deal only with the repression in Brazil, after the coup d'etat in Chile it was expanded to analyze the situation in all of Latin America.

A constituent meeting took place in Brussels on November 6, 1973. Preliminary reports were given on Brazil and Chile, but also on Uruguay, Bolivia, Panama, Paraguay and Haiti. Two public sessions were held by the second Tribunal. The first took place in Rome, from March 30th to April 6th 1974, and the second in Brussels, from January 11th to January 18th 1975. The official name chosen by the constituents was "Russell Tribunal II on Repression in Brazil, in Chile and in Latin America."

At the end of each of the public sessions, the tribunal reached a "verdict" which addressed the questions stated at the beginning. The first Tribunal concluded not only that United States was committing war crimes in Vietnam, but also that the war was to be considered a genocide against the people of Vietnam. It also judged Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand to be accomplices of United States in the war. The second Tribunal stated that the Brazilian, Chilean, Uruguayan and Bolivian authorities were "guilty of serious, repeated and systematic violations of human rights," which violations constituted a crime against humanity.

The Russell Tribunal, severely criticized when it was founded, has, to some extent, become a model, an example for private citizens wanting to make use of evidence, logic and law on an international level, as a means of political protest and publicity. Indeed, the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal was founded in Bologna, on June 24, 1979, as a direct successor of the second Russell Tribunal. In the last decade, a Russell Tribunal on Iraq took place in 2004, and a Russell Tribunal on Palestine was established in 2009.

Sources: International War Crimes Tribunal, against the Crime of Silence: Proceedings of the Russell International War Crimes Tribunal, Stockholm, Copenhagen. New York: Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, 1968.