From Vietnam to Palestine: A crime of silence?

By Harry Hagopian
12 Jan 2012

"May this Tribunal prevent the crime of silence …" declared Lord Bertrand Russell to define both the spirit and objective of the International War Crimes Tribunal that was constituted in 1966 to investigate crimes committed in Vietnam and judge them according to International law.

Initiated by Lord Russell, a Nobel Prize laureate, this tribunal soon became known as the Russell Tribunal and was buttressed by eminent intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Gisèle Halimi. It enjoys no juridical status. However, it acts as a court of the people, reflecting their pulse and conscience, when faced with injustices or violations of international law that are not dealt with by existing international jurisdictions or that are perhaps recognised, but continue with impunity due to a lack of political will by the international community.

The Russell Tribunal also focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. ‘Judges’ strive annually to identify the shortcomings in the implementation of those rights under International law that have been swept aside in this particular conflict but they also contribute toward the mobilisation of civil society in all the states that are concerned with the question of Palestine.

Having followed the recent meetings in Jordan between the Israeli and Palestinian sides headed by Yitzhak Molcho and Sa’eb Ereikat, in the presence of the Quartet and their Jordanian host, Lord Russell’s decades-old declaration “may this Tribunal prevent the crime of silence” rang loudly in my mind again. After all, over the past year, we have been witnessing popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region where the people are also seeking to reclaim their dignity and citizenship rights as well as economic and social justice.

Yet, Palestine remains politically inert despite the artificial fireworks of a UN application for statehood or its membership of the UNESCO. So why is Palestine faced with such a thunderous crime of silence?

• The facile answer would simply be to claim that the fault lies entirely with the US Administration and the Quartet whose previous attempts at a resolution of this conflict have resulted in abject failure. Clearly, this Quartet cannot deliver anymore and it is high time to admit that its structure, let alone envoy, are no longer creditable. After all, and under their watch, Palestine has inexorably been shrinking as well as fading away from the international scene.

• Meanwhile, illegal settlements are multiplying at an ever-faster pace, with the Israeli government implementing its predatory colonial policies that are transforming the geography of the whole land. Palestinians today find themselves in a situation where both the two-state and one-state solutions are becoming untenable - the former because one cannot claim a virtual state without enjoying the viable tools of sovereignty under international law, and the latter because Israel will simply not allow an outcome that would alter the Jewish identity of its midwifed state.

• Besides, Palestinians themselves are increasingly eliciting a lack of interest in a negotiated two-state solution. Instead, they are striving to change the essence of the conflict from an Algerian paradigm that resists occupation with arms to a South African anti-apartheid one - in other words, from a struggle against ‘occupation’ to one that exercises the ‘one-man-one-vote’ system. This is a struggle that is plainly less heterotelic and ultimately more powerful.

• However, almost always blaming the ‘other’ and hardly ever examining the ‘self’ - whether the other is Israel, the USA, the Quartet, some Arab countries or other parties - is likewise an abdication in part of their responsibility. Palestinians should proact rather than react, and they should set the political agenda rather than receive instructions or tutorials from others. They should do it with the full confidence that the peoples of the MENA region - North Africans before Middle Easterners even - hold the Palestinian question in the heart of their political imagination.

• However, to set such a proactive agenda, Palestinians must forsake erstwhile ineffective scenarios and paralytic processes and aim instead toward unifying their efforts around the PLO so they can articulate their positions with one voice that reflects neither Iranian and Syrian, nor American and Saudi Arabian, interests but rather their own. In this sense, the Palestine Authority and Hamas are to blame equally for their failures as well as dereliction of duty toward their constituencies in east Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and within the Arab Israeli populace too.

• As a starter, Palestinians today should reject any further Israeli settlements being built on land defined as occupied under international law, as well as refuse any resumption of negotiations that have no clear parameters or outcomes. After all, two long decades of dilettante political negotiations have led nowhere but have merely become fruitless talking shops, back-patting photo opportunities or costly ego trips. Palestinians must now use their legal arsenal to coerce UN member-states into acquitting themselves of their legal obligations toward an occupation. Failing that, their alternative would be a wave of peaceful resistance akin to what is happening across the MENA region today.

In Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s powerful tragedy that was adapted into a film by Ralph Fiennes, there is an almost prescient moment when Coriolanus flies into a rage, rails against the concept of ‘popular rule’ and suggests that allowing plebeians to hold power over patricians is comparable to allowing “crows to peck the eagles”. In a region where the “crows” are indeed pecking the “eagles” with unflagging determination, Israelis and Palestinians alike should beware of what lies ahead.

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net

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