Doing Law Differently
Globocops / CORPORATE POWER
Academic and activist legal circles like to discuss the law as a 'site of struggle'. Some successes may be achieved: an errant employer brought to justice; a corporation fined for its polluting practices; compensation paid for illnesses caused by unsafe working environments. These are important victories. But the vast majority of people cannot afford to gain a hearing - let alone reparation - for their suffering.
Prompted by this realization, new initiatives for the 'doing of law' have emerged, providing an alternative to the power of dominant law. One example is the Permanent People's Tribunal (PPT).
The roots of the PPT lie in the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal - originally an activist initiative to indict the US Government for the war in Vietnam. Based in Rome, its legal philosophy derives from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1976 Algiers Declaration on the Rights of Peoples. The latter is particularly relevant. Led by activists from the Third World, the Algiers Declaration preamble states: 'May all those who, throughout the world, are fighting the great battle. for the freedom of all peoples, find in this Declaration the assurance of the legitimacy of their struggle.'
From these origins the PPT has emerged as an enduring site for an alternative judgement of wrongs. It refuses to accept the power of law to negate the suffering of peoples by normalizing violence, naming it a 'misfortune'. As Bertrand Russell identified, the struggle is against the 'crime of silence' which enables the powerful to silence the voices of pain through the processes of politics and law - in the courts, in the legislative bodies of state, in international negotiations, in the media, in education.
This means giving priority to marginalized voices. No cause of peoples' struggle is outside PPT jurisdiction. Recent sessions of the Tribunal have heard the cases of the communities of Chernobyl, workers in garment industries and those affected by the operations of the Freeport/Rio Tinto and Monsanto corporations.
Other sessions have focused on the victims of industrial hazards, including the Union Carbide corporation at Bhopal, India, where 15,000 local residents were killed by toxic gas that leaked from its factory in 1984. The sessions helped improve the medical facilities for the victims - an obligation undertaken by Union Carbide as part of the controversial settlement with the Government of India. And they served as a source of embarrassment to both parties about the enduring inadequacy of their response.
In France, the Elf oil corporation - in collusion with the French Government - attempted to derail PPT sessions about its record. It sued the organizers for abuse of its commercial logo. The blood dripping from the Elf logo in posters damaged its commercial standing, it suggested. This claim was dismissed in court - a rare favourable judgement - on the grounds that free speech in the public interest overrode Elf's case. Elf also tried unsuccessfully to prevent the tribunal from meeting in the National Assembly building, made possible by the persistence of the Green Party. The sessions had a significant impact on the corporation, as well as on the politics surrounding Elf - although allegations of collusion and corruption at the highest levels were already matters of public concern in France.
It is true that the PPT has no power to compel the 'accused' to appear before it, nor to enforce its judgement. Rather, it serves as a legitimating forum. Its judgements stand as a public record of the truth - and of the crime of denial. The doing of law for the PPT is essentially a process of listening, giving to the narratives of suffering the dignity denied them elsewhere.
The PPT is by no means the only people's tribunal. Others include the International People's Tribunal, the Indian People's Tribunal, the African Court of Women and the Ka Ho'okolokolonui Kanaka Maoli (the People's International Tribunal of the Native Hawaiian). With varying degrees of innovation, they perform the difficult task of 'speaking truth to power'. The task is difficult because such tribunals belong neither to the world of dominant law nor to grassroots communities. They function as an intermediary, translating the demands of the violated into language that is comprehensible to the dominant sectors of society - straddling the worlds of the oppressed and the oppressor.
This creates a dilemma. To be heard within dominant political and legal circles, the conventions of the law as prescribed by the powerful need to be complied with. But these are precisely what disable the majority. Rethinking law requires the learning of lessons from other sources.
Here I believe there is potential for a more radical agenda. When the indigenous peoples and peasants of Chiapas, Mexico, raised the cry of '¡Ya Basta!' ('Enough!') in 1994 they struck a chord that resonated across the world. The Zapatistas are not unique, but in their voice was the confidence to propose an alternative legality.
The texts of the Zapatista uprising are important for two reasons. First, because they denounce the neo-liberal agenda of global capitalism from the vantage point of the peoples affected. Second - and this is perhaps the more significant - they affirm a vision of life and social relations that celebrates the vitality, the power to speak and dream, of people who wish to live in harmony with one another and with nature.
Other texts and visions abound. The 'People's Resolve' of the National Alliance of People's Movements in India is one example. The Resolve emerged from a long process of dialogue between people's organizations in India. Among its resolutions are the following: 'We believe that people's right to life with dignity is paramount. We oppose the uncontrolled powers of global and national capital. which deprive a people of their control over resources and security of food and livelihood. We oppose the profit-oriented New Economic Policy. We, therefore, propose that India quits the WTO. Multinational companies should be made to quit India. We struggle for a reorientation of economic policy.'
The 'Statement of Unity' of the Rural and Indigenous Women of the Asia-Pacific unites groups across state boundaries. A coalition of women's organizations gathered in May 1998 in Chiangmai, Thailand, to oppose the 'onslaught of the global market and foreign monopoly capital'. Recognizing the collusion of local political and economic élites, the Statement makes a commitment to 'in turn globalize our resistance. to effectively resist and eliminate unjust and unequal systems that exploit and oppress the rural poor and indigenous peoples, especially the women.'
The Charter of Farmers' Rights issued by the international Seed Satyagraha Movement for biodiversity is a third example. Led by farmers' groups in India, particularly the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), the movement is a reaction against the privatization of seeds and farming processes. It challenges the right of governments and corporations to the basic resources of agricultural life. Amongst the rights asserted by the Charter are: the right to land; the right to conserve, reproduce and modify seed and plant material; the right to feed and save the country from food insecurity; the right to information and participatory research.
This reclaiming of the voice of judgement represents a significant challenge to the power of corporations and governments to define the economic good of society. I believe this heralds a new politics of law. The challenge is to recognize these expressions of people's judgements as law, truly of the people, by the people, for the people. The time will come when a different law is done - out of conflict and struggle, defeat and suppression, no doubt. But the time will come.
is a Lecturer in the postgraduate Law in Development Programme at the University of Warwick. He would be pleased to hear from groups and individuals with information about other attempts by people's groups to voice their law. Jayan can be contacted by e-mail at: [email protected]