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The performative core of power and legitimacy in human rights organisations: the case of the Russell Tribunal

2nd February 2015

CGHR Research Group Seminar

The Performative Core of Power and Legitimacy in Human Rights Organisations: the Case of the Russell Tribunal

Dr. Javier Perez Jara

Discussant: Professor Patrick Baert 

Bertrand Russell’s popularity grants him a place among the great social activists of the past century. In the name of Human Rights, he was a militant pacifist during World War I and in the nuclear era, fought for decriminalising homosexuality, vocally defended women’s suffrage, and invested his best intellectual energies in transforming public opinion. In 1963, he created the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation with an objective no less impressive than enforcing Human Rights on a global scale. As part of that endeavour, in 1966, he promoted the first Russell Tribunal, the goal of which was to judge and condemn the war crimes committed by the United States and its allies in the Vietnam War.

The Tribunal was strikingly successful in mobilising public opinion and, as a result, forced the United States to defend itself from the accusations made and even modify its fighting strategies and policies. Because of this success, after Russell’s death, subsequent Russell Tribunals extended their “jurisdiction” to other parts of the world, from Chile’s military coup d’état to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. But what were the sources of legitimacy and power of this organisation? In Russell’s words: “our tribunal, it must be noted, commands no State power. It rests on no victorious army. It claims no other than a moral authority.”

This paper provides a sociological explanation of the performative core of the Russell Tribunal’s power and legitimacy following a speech-act theory, in particular, combining Patrick Baert’s positioning theory with Jeffrey C. Alexander’s dramaturgical approach and Ron Eyerman’s notion of cultural trauma. I will argue that the social success and survival of a human rights organisation on a global scale mainly depend on a range of rhetorical and dramaturgical devices by which their creators position themselves and their institution, along with their adversaries, within specific social, political and intellectual contexts. The performative dimension of power clarifies how wars are fought and won not only on the battlefield, but also in the hearts and minds of citizens on both the home front and the enemy side. This and similar sociological factors need to be taken into account when explaining (and promoting) the success and transcendence of human rights organisations beyond the state’s power.

The CGHR Research Group is a forum for graduate students and early-career researchers from any department and disciplinary background researching issues of governance and human rights in the global, regional, and national contexts.