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>  News Releases >   2003 >   February

'Tribunal' advocates for the voiceless

Posted 02/05/03, by Tamara Steinert

Dartmouth's Spitzer among U.S. reps at latest meeting

For three days in December, sitting above the city of Rome in a building overlooking the ruins of the Forum, Leo Spitzer felt like he was participating in something historic.

He had been to the Eternal City in the past, but this trip was different. Instead of spending his days wandering the city's ancient streets in search of unique shops and hidden restaurants, Spitzer found himself sitting before an audience of 300, listening to an international assembly of lawyers, journalists, aid workers and academics discuss the relationship between international law and the "new wars" of the modern world. Flanking him along the narrow table that stretched across the front of the room were a Nobel Peace Prize winner from Argentina, a former member of the European Parliament and a Spanish Supreme Criminal Court judge, along with 14 others from around the world. All of them had come together as jurors on the People's Permanent Tribunal (PPT), a forum created to examine and suggest remedies to global human-rights violations.


Leo Spitzer, Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor of History (third from the left), and colleagues on the Permanent People's Tribunal hear testimony in Rome in December.

"I was impressed by the majesty of it all," said Spitzer, Professor of History. "The building was on the Piazza del Campidoglio, which was designed by Michelangelo. Inside the meeting room we were surrounded by magnificent paintings and sculptures. The windows that faced the jury table looked over the ruins of the Roman Forum. I was struck by the thought that these ruins had witnessed so many wars, and that here we were, in front of them, faced with the possibility of another, perhaps even more horrible violent conflict."

Sponsored by the Lelio Basso International Foundation for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples, the PPT has assembled approximately 30 times since 1979 to consider topics ranging from the effect of global corporations to the right of asylum. Each event includes testimony from "witnesses" who offer expertise about the issue at hand. In the tribunal Spitzer participated in from Dec. 14 to 16, 2002, testimony included political analyses of recent conflicts in Kosovo and the Persian Gulf, discussions about the notions of preventive and just war, examinations of international law, and presentations by representatives from nongovernmental organizations, who testified about the "on-the-ground" consequences of warfare for civilians. At the event's conclusion, the jury offered its ideas and opinions on the issue in a report submitted to the Secretary General of the United Nations and to other international organizations. Jurors are invited by the Foundation on the basis of nominations from academicians and the general public.

Spitzer, who was nominated by Graziella Parati of the Dartmouth French and Italian Department, explained that the PPT was not a true tribunal in the sense that the jury chooses between competing viewpoints. Instead, the group acts collectively to advocate for those people whose voices might otherwise be overlooked in discussions about social and political issues. "The philosophy is that the general public should be able to participate in decision making related to matters that affect their daily life," explained Spitzer, who, along with Princeton University Professor of International Law Richard Falk was one of only two U.S. citizens on the jury. He saw that egalitarian spirit demonstrated in many small details, like providing translation services and refreshments to the audience members as well as to jurors and witnesses. "The only privilege that jurors had that wasn't available to the general public was the opportunity to ask extended questions of the witnesses," Spitzer said, noting that the audience was full each day.

At the heart of the tribunal Spitzer participated in was an examination of how war is increasingly perceived as a way to resolve international controversies.

While the current threat of war with Iraq weighed heavily on the minds of the participants, the jurors also tried to look at the long-term consequences of this perspective.

"The irony is that we had a whole series of 'new wars' in the 1990s, like the Gulf War and Kosovo — but it was also a decade which put more emphasis on international law. And now we're seeing the threat these new wars pose for the international order that has been created," he said. In the tribunal's report, the jurors argued that legitimizing "preventive" wars such as the one proposed against Iraq would "erode all confidence in the possibility that the international system can be based on moral principles and rules that are universally valid."

They also suggested that this situation would "bring about a return to a kind of imperial international rule which would rapidly undermine international governance and democracy itself."

Listening to the testimony and comments from other jurors, Spitzer said he gained a better understanding of how much concern there is in other nations, especially in Europe, about U.S. international policy.

"You hear in conversation all the time how much anti-Americanism there is in Europe. I've always kind of pooh-poohed that. But this experience showed me there is real fear that we're kind of a 'loose gun' and a threat to the general stability of the world," Spitzer said. "I began to realize that what Europeans and others from Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East were trying to say is 'Hey, we have a voice, too.'"

"The most touching presentations were by the people involved with organizations like Doctors Without Borders, who gave testimony about how these wars have affected the children, and about the casualties that have been created in the public at large. Those stories about the effects of war on the general population were extremely powerful," he said.

Spitzer also found that the diversity of American opinions about war often isn't covered by the foreign press. "Two American nuns who were sitting in the audience came up to me afterward and were very thankful that I had mentioned that there is an antiwar movement here. They said that there's total lack of information about this type of movement in many parts of Europe," he said.

- Tamara Steinert

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