So many questions: Secretary of the Russell Tribunal in SA, Terry Crawford-Browne

31 July 2011 - 04:10 By Chris Barron

Cape Town will host the Russell Tribunal into whether Israel is practising apartheid against the Palestinians. Chris Barron asked the secretary of the tribunal in SA, Terry Crawford-Browne ...

Is this another Israel-bashing exercise?

Very definitely not. The Russell Tribunal has a long history dating to the 1960s when Bertrand Russell established the first Russell tribunal on war crimes in Vietnam. That led to a change of attitudes and eventually to the American withdrawal. That was followed by another tribunal on war crimes in South America, particularly Chile and Argentina. Obviously, there's been a major change in South America.

You're hoping it have a similar effect on Israel?

Very much so. It was prompted by Operation Cast Lead (Israel's bombing of Gaza) in 2008/9. The first session was held in Barcelona in March 2010 on the complicity of the EU and its member states in not holding Israel accountable to the UN Charter, the Geneva conventions and other instruments of international law. There was a second one in November 2010 in London on the complicity of international corporations profiteering from the occupation of Palestine. That was rooted in the International Court of Justice opinion in 2004 that found that the wall was illegal and should be dismantled and Palestinians compensated. By extension anything that would further the occupation was also illegal.

If the tribunal finds that Israel is practicing apartheid, what then?

The final session will be remedies, what is the role of the international community ...

This takes us to the session being held in Cape Town. In terms of international law, apartheid does not just apply to SA, but internationally. There are conventions on the suppression of the crime of apartheid. These conventions are part of international law. In addition the International Criminal Court also refers to the crime of apartheid. So the purpose of the Russell tribunal is to enhance respect for international law and its development.

In terms of bringing change in Israel isn't this all rather academic?

No, not at all.

When push comes to shove...

When push comes to shove they'll look at SA, where it was international pressure in conjunction with domestic pressure, far more, I suggest, than Umkhonto weSizwe, that led to our transition.

Might one argue that Israel has the solid backing of the world's only superpower?

Well, I would argue that apartheid SA had the backing of the world's superpower in the form of Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher, who pulled every stunt she could, both of them did, to support the apartheid government. Up until the late 1980s the apartheid government waved the anti-communist flag at every opportunity in the same way the Israeli government waves the anti-Semitic flag.

So, what do you see happening? Israel being taken to the International Criminal Court?

This will depend on the findings. We have nine jurists of international significance. It is not a court of law, it's a tribunal. But the intention is to develop international opinion as to the parallels of apartheid in Israel itself as well as in Palestine, and how it meets the definition of the convention against apartheid.

Doesn't it damage the credibility of the tribunal when its members include known Israel-bashers like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela?

I don't think there is anyone better in SA to describe the experience of apartheid than Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

What about her own human rights record?

For all her personal difficulties she certainly has experience of what it was like to suffer under apartheid.

Won't her record of human rights abuses damage the tribunal's credibility?

We've taken that into account, and it is for her to testify on the experiences of apartheid. That will be her function.

Has the tribunal focused the attention on other countries in the Middle East where human rights are at least equally abused?

We don't dispute that at all. What happens in Syria and Saudi Arabia is a nightmare. But Israel does claim to be a democracy. It is in occupation of Palestine, and it does not comply with the Geneva conventions.

Isn't it bizarre to sit in Cape Town judging Israel, while worse atrocities are being committed every day just across the border in Zimbabwe?

Not at all. There is a convention against apartheid, apartheid is illegal in terms of international law, Israel is in occupation of Palestine, illegally. The Russell tribunal cannot take on every issue in the world. I, in fact, said to the international convenor (of the Russell Tribunal) 12 days ago that we need an African tribunal. But we must deal with this issue first.