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Message to New York Session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine

Bertrand Russell died on 2 February 1970, in his 98th year. Two days earlier he had composed a message to the International Conference of Parliamentarians, who were about to meet in Cairo whilst Israeli air raids reached deep into Egyptian territory. Russell’s message was read to the assembled parliamentarians on the day after his sudden death. He had remarked that:

‘The tragedy of the people of Palestine is that their country was “given” by a foreign Power to another people for the creation of a new State. The result was that many hundreds of thousands of innocent people were made permanently homeless. With every new conflict their numbers have increased. How much longer is the world willing to endure this spectacle of wanton cruelty? It is abundantly clear that the refugees have every right to the homeland from which they were driven, and the denial of this right is at the heart of the continuing conflict. No people anywhere in the world would accept being expelled en masse from their own country; how can anyone require the people of Palestine to accept a punishment which nobody else would tolerate? A permanent just settlement of the refugees in their homelands is an essential ingredient of any just settlement in the Middle East.’

Russell spoke with characteristic passion and clarity. More than 40 years on, the tragedy and injustices done to the people of Palestine, which he described, persist and grow deeper. That is why, several years ago, when Pierre Galand and Robert Kissous travelled to England to propose a Russell Tribunal on Palestine to Ken Coates, then Chairman of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, Ken readily agreed to ‘lend our flag’ for the purpose. This was unfinished business, as far as the Russell Foundation was concerned.

All this was before the 60th anniversary of the expulsion of the Palestinian peoples, in 1948, which we have now come to know as the ‘Nakba’. At this meeting in Matlock in the English countryside, Pierre Galand remarked that almost 60 years had passed and the Palestinians still did not have a State. So it was that the Russell Tribunal on Palestine was born, with the moral support of the Russell Foundation. It was to grow into an impressive autonomous initiative which probes continuing and widespread complicity on the part of states, international bodies such as the European Union, and corporations in the enduring tragedy of the Palestinian people. Russell had asked ‘How much longer is the world willing to endure this spectacle of wanton cruelty?’ One answer is ‘all too long’.

So we welcome the Tribunal’s New York Session on ‘US complicity and UN failings in dealing with Israel’s violations of international law towards the Palestinian people’, and await its findings with keen anticipation. Previous sessions of the Tribunal, in Barcelona, London and Cape Town, have afforded new insights into a persisting dilemma. The London session, which I attended, highlighted the actions of many corporations which shore up the infrastructure of occupation and repression, represented so starkly by the long high wall now winding across Palestine. It also brought together activists in diverse campaigns in Israel, the United States and Europe which expose such complicity, together with lawyers who perceive pillage and plunder on the part of the occupiers and those who help them. Those of us who attended in London in November 2010 heard of some notable victories in respect of shifting the approach of corporations engaged in diverse sectors such as transport, finance, prisons and cosmetics.

Russell had, apparently, been rather sceptical when what became the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal was first proposed, in the 1960s. You might think that a characteristic response on his part. He was exercised about aspects of victors’ justice which had characterised some of the proceedings of the Nuremberg Tribunal, but came to see that, in fact, something like the reverse obtained in the case of the Vietnam Tribunal. In November 1966 in London, in a speech to the first meeting of members of the War Crimes Tribunal, he said:

‘ …We do not represent any state power, nor can we compel the policy-makers responsible for crimes against the people of Vietnam to stand accused before us. We lack force majeure. The procedures of a trial are impossible to implement. I believe that these apparent limitations are, in fact, virtues. We are free to conduct a solemn and historic investigation, uncompelled by reasons of state or other such obligations.. ’

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine is similarly free to conduct its solemn and historic investigation. In 1966, Russell concluded by saying ‘May this Tribunal prevent the crime of silence’. We share his purpose.

In that sense, we would like to alert participants in New York to the continuing imprisonment of Ayse Berktay Hacimirzaoglu and thousands of other activists seeking a peaceful and democratic resolution of Kurdish demands in Turkey. Ayse is a keen supporter of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, and has offered advice arising from her own experiences in helping to organise the World Tribunal on Iraq, which culminated in Istanbul in 2005. Her extensive travels to realise that project are now listed in the criminal indictment against her and hundreds of other Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) activists, currently on trial in Turkey. Her peaceful activism is used against her as though it were for some unspecified unlawful purpose. She and many others have been imprisoned for a year already in pre-trial detention. As you will see from the Russell Foundation website, we seek to prevent the crime of silence in their cases as well.

We look forward to a fruitful Session.

Tony Simpson Ken Fleet

Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation