Sitting in judgment
Archived article from Nov 18, 2002
"It's the law," people often insist as if there were only one, immutable code of conduct. But courts can and do function under very different rules and regulations. Here Camden professors look at two alternatives to the prevailing legal system ¡ª one run by the military, the other by citizens.
The citizens' court
By Caroline Yount
"International Citizens' Tribunals: Mobilizing Public Opinion to Advance Human Rights" (Palgrave, 2002) is the latest book by Arthur Jay Klinghoffer, a professor of political science at the Camden campus, and Judith Apter Klinghoffer, a senior research associate in international relations. In it, this husband-and-wife team explores why citizens' tribunals are convened and how they could be made more effective.
Much like nongovernmental organizations, citizens' tribunals are generally founded and funded by groups of like-minded people who feel strongly about particular issues. Though these unofficial courts have no legal authority, they can, if successful, greatly influence public opinion.
In their book, the Klinghoffers look at tribunals beginning with the Reichstag countertrial in 1933. When the Nazis accused five communists of setting the Reichstag on fire, European and American lawyers responded by staging a countertrial that preceded the trial in Germany. The countertrial proved that four of the five accused --including a German Parliament member -- were innocent. In fact, it was so effective that the four were eventually released. "This action launched a new, unofficial way of advancing human rights," the Klinghoffers say.
A few years later, another tribunal, the Dewey Commission, was formed in response to the Moscow show trials. The panel was inspired by the efforts of the Leon Trotsky defense committee in New York, which argued that the already exiled Communist leader should have the chance to clear his name in the court of public opinion.
The chair, John Dewey, a distinguished scholar and a founder of the publication New Republic, was not sympathetic to Trotsky, but believed in his right to a fair hearing. "Dewey was an objective scholar who agreed to chair an investigatory commission in an effort to ascertain the truth," the authors say.
The commission held hearings in Mexico at which Trotsky was the major witness. A few months later, the group found him innocent of conspiring against the Soviet regime. "This had no effect on the course of the Soviet trials or Soviet justice," Arthur Klinghoffer points out, "but it changed world opinion as to Trotsky's innocence."
More recent citizens' tribunals have been less productive, the authors observe, in part because they abandoned objective fact-finding in favor of partisan politics. This shift can be traced to the 1967 Russell Tribunal on Vietnam, organized and financed by philosopher Bertrand Russell.
"Russell believed that the United States was committing war crimes in Vietnam and originally wanted to indict President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara," Arthur Klinghoffer says. In fact, all the tribunal's members opposed America's role in Vietnam.
Held in Sweden and Denmark, the tribunal garnered little media attention. Only North Vietnam gave it any publicity.
In spite of the Russell Tribunal's lack of overall impact, it has tended to be the model for other such panels. In recent years, tribunals have dealt with such causes as Mumia Abu-Jamal, women's rights, labor rights, environmental hazards and Chechnya. But none of these councils has had the success of the Reichstag countertrial or the Dewey Commission, the authors say.
Greater impartiality and stricter procedure -- marking a return to the origins of such organizations =- could help future tribunals to be more effective, the Klinghoffers suggest.
By Michael Sepanic
"If, as seems likely, the United States is going to rely on its military justice system to detain, prosecute and punish suspected terrorists, the legal processes of our armed forces must be subjected to careful scrutiny," cautions Beth Hillman, an assistant professor at the School of Law-Camden.
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