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A new strategy in the struggle for human rights and social justice-peoples’ tribunals

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  • A new strategy in the struggle for human rights and social justice-peoples’ tribunals

    D21 social justice-peoples’ tribunals
    A new strategy in the struggle for human rights
    and social justice-peoples’ tribunals


    Professor Gill H. Boehringer

    July 2013

    One of the challenges we face today is to move beyond the limited strategy of what I will refer to as “formal legal struggle.” We need to add to the strategy which has essentially been a defensive one, or in some cases limited offensive forays. And to do so with the goal of transforming the capitalist system into a social formation in which we become fully liberated human beings. That would be a real revolution!

    For a very long time, progressive lawyers – even peoples’ lawyers – have represented the interests of people on the “underside.” And full credit to them. In my paper on the Filipino Model for Peoples’ Lawyering I have made clear my admiration for those lawyers who have chosen the path of resistance to capitalist repression and exploitation and have included undersiders in those struggles.

    However, if we look at the results, of that long struggle in overall terms, things are not what we would want them to be. We are still very much on the defensive, relying on bourgeois law and legal institutions which we all know are “Tilted” against us, as Prof. Wythe Holt has demonstrated.. (See e.g. my paper “The Myth of Judicial Independence”). Often, one feels, our demands are limited (reform the law; give us our legal rights, etc.).

    Much of the struggle relies on recognizing existing rights and legal institutions. In a sense, we are usually involved in a struggle with short term goals and reliance on the institutions and personnel of the state (judges, courts, laws, even prosecutors). Inevitably, this often gives legitimacy to the very institutions which are part of the machinery of repression. It is obvious, I believe, that although the masses are suspicious of individuals in the system, and perhaps cynical as a result of obvious corruption and injustices, they also have an enduring “if only” faith in the system: if only they were not corrupt etc., then we could rely on them to bring justice into our lives. A recent SWS Survey indicates that 74% of Filipinos have faith in democracy! (See my paper arguing they certainly ought not to have faith in what I suggest is in reality “Faux Democracy…).

    Capitalist ideology, particularly as spewed forth from the “ideological state apparatuses” (and religious and private enterprises such as the schools) and by the media, with its claims for the liberal democratic notions of the rule of law, the separation of power and associated myths, creates populations which find it difficult to shed such beliefs even when a great deal of evidence suggests that the reality is quite different from the ideology.

    Furthermore, by using a system of law which is hierarchic and professional, with its authoritarian practices and symbols, the bowing and scraping which is required by the legal traditions of obedience and deference to authority, I would suggest we lawyers do not set a great example for the “self-emancipation” of the masses, about which there exists a strong tradition of socialist and other progressive writing.(I am particularly referring to Marxist writings, especially Antonio Gramsci).

    Contemporary capitalism has not been much improved by legal struggles. In recent years it has become worse in many respects. Corporations are the dominant institutions in society and exercise far too much power over nation states. Contemporary globalization has brought mega monsters which are catered to by fearful nation states. Inequality grows in states around the globe; poverty and hunger stalk the land of even “developed” nations.

    The George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin example is apposite here. People fear each other, and this turns them into racial and religious adversaries. Killing machines. As we can see in everyday life, Marx’s prediction comes true: there is nothing to bind people together, as capitalism has destroyed co-operation, instituted competition and reduced our links to each other to the “cash nexus.”

    What is needed is a socialist strategy whereby the power of the people can be turned against this de-humanizing system, and in doing so not only (1) expose the structures of abuse in the Greedy Beast, but (2) develop the peoples’ own capacity to build a new society in which people are able to co-operate, to love and respect each other.

    My argument is that ordinary people need to take possession of their own issues, and that by doing so they can begin the process of self-emancipation which is necessary to build a socialist society without the authoritarian mistakes made after previous would-be socialist revolutions. This is not just a matter of bourgeois “empowerment” so popular in reformist discourse. I am suggesting the transformation of the masses by their actions in resistance, through which they will “prefigure” post-revolutionary self-understanding and authentic human relationships rather than those which arise out of fear, greed and competition.

    If we want to build a socialist society, we need to be socialists, in a sense, before the revolution. We need to develop our capacity to act with and for each other. We need to break the ideological and experiential chains which bind us-mentally, culturally and in all other ways. I suggest we need to develop the capacity for local people to take the lead in actions defending and opposing those institutions which threaten their lives and welfare, their right to be fully human.

    This requires the development of a movement for peoples’ tribunals at the local level. These tribunals would, of course, need material and ideological support (and protection) by progressive elements, including peoples’ lawyers. Local peoples’ tribunals (LPT) would start in a small way with local issues that those affected understand to be a negative phenomenon in their community. It could be unsafe conditions in factories, such as the cracks in the walls in the building which collapsed in Bangladesh, killing about 1200 garment workers. If that had been made a public issue, and a “judgement” passed by a LPT, perhaps the tragedy could have been prevented. The dangers were well known, as were the factory owners’ practice, in both Bangladesh and Pakistan, of locking doors and windows; so, that when a fire started, as happened several times recently, workers would be imprisoned in a burning building.

    Local centers for education and training of cadres might emerge. The LPTs and the centers would be supported by those of us with practical experience in such institutions as the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT), and by peoples’ lawyers working with downsiders, e.g. as do the Filipino lawyers of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers. One could imagine that the PPT would be sympathetic to such supplementation of its work, and could support the development of a movement, which might usefully help to create a network of regional support centers for education and training of local people.

    The PPT has done exceptional work for decades, but its work is generally of a different order, at a different level (though recent work in Asia with the All Asian Floor Wage Alliance and in Mexico shows its flexibility and innovative practice). In brief, it is distant, formally non-political, somewhat cumbersome, and to an extent relies on laws, legal institutions and professionals, and essentially tries to be seen as impartial so that its Reports will have more credibility and legitimacy. And its limited resources mean that it can take on but a small number of the cases in which it might play a significant role.

    By comparison, the LPTs would serve as a part of an on-the-ground movement for social justice. It would monitor activity likely to harm the community, and the inaction or inappropriate action of state agencies. It would bring together information from knowledgeable local and national sources (such as Karapatan in the Philippines) and would develop progressive solutions for issues which would be generated from the underside.

    In the process of taking these matters into their own hands, as part of a “front,” such LPTs would provide the people with a credible analysis, and would be in a position to “pronounce” answers to the questions: what is wrong here; what are the root causes; who is responsible; what should be done. The emphasis would be on justice, not the law which is often quite a different thing.

    And in so doing the people involved in such autonomous actions, would be experiencing the process of becoming free, as well as setting an example for others to work towards their own freedom from capitalist oppression. They would be helping to create the new socialist persons we need to bring about – and sustain – a truly socialist revolution. This is what Gramsci and others in their different ways, referred to as the “self-emancipation” of the people.

    Without a significant experience of that process, there have emerged, inevitably, the post-revolutionary bureaucratic regimes which have not yet brought us a truly socialist society.

    Last edited by Epsilon=One; 04-19-2018, 11:55 AM.