The following are my sketches and thoughts on the first day of proceedings at the Russell Tribunal’s fourth session in NYC. I’m bummed to have missed the cultural event Friday night, which apparently included some epic storytelling, some rambling speeches, and some great performances, but I will also cover Sunday’s speeches and the final press wrap-up on Monday.
Many of my friends have poured a lot of energy into the Tribunal for the past few weeks, and some for the past months so I wanted to see what the fuss was.
When I got to Cooper Union at 9 am on a Saturday morning the line wrapped around the block, and volunteers were trying to keep people vaguely organized on the fly. A separate line I didn’t draw is just the people on standby waiting for a chance to maybe get in.
More people waiting on line. Actually, truth be told, as official Mondoweiss cartoonist, I had a press pass waiting for me, but I have always felt that the duty of a journalist is to stand amongst the people and be with them in moments of travail and not to take advantage of the apartheid press system. And then at 10 am I got tired of that so decided to do so.
I forgot to draw the security once you get inside….metal detectors like at an airport, bag screeners, and a bomb-sniffing dog. The event itself was in the “Great Hall” at Cooper Union, in the basement, as shown here–auditorium style seating. I was particularly impressed with the large number of pillars strategically placed to prevent the maximum number of sightlines, I am sure. In the back you can see some of the many many cameras. People said when I started sketching it would help make it feel like a real courtroom, except of course the whole point of courtroom sketching is that no cameras are allowed.
Ok! Here we go! So up top you see Pierre Galland, the chair of the proceedings. He welcomed the audience with a long speech in French, apparently under the mistaken assumption that we all had U.N.-style simultaneous translation headphones (which, to be fair, were later passed out haphazardly) so I didn’t really get much out of what he was saying, since I don’t speak French. I have tried to transcribe his speech as accurately as I could.
Galland then switched to English. He is saying here: “If Leila Shahid, the EU Ambassador from Palestine, cannot be here today it is because the U.S. Embassy in Brussels did not give her a visa in time. If Hilary Clinton is not here, it is because she did not respond to the invitation we sent her.”
Below him is the Mayor of Geneva, who apparently provided funding for the Tribunal, also speaking in French, and below the Frenchmen are three of the jurors: Angela Davis, Miguel Angel Estrella and Ronnie Kasrils.
Pierre Galland kept saying, “Please, no applause” after introducing each speaker because we were supposed to pretend this was a real tribunal and have an air of formality. Later he got a little annoyed that we had a very hard time following this simple instruction and told us we were less disciplined than audiences in London and Johannesburg and Barcelona. Someone who was in London told me that the proceedings there were much more formal and it did make things very impressive and grave.
He then held up a small book, and said– “Here is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” And then he said, roughly– “And here is the man who wrote it.” Or, the only one left of the group that wrote it. And with that he introduced the only juror to give a welcoming speech, Stéphane Hessel.
And Stéphane Hessel was amazing. A tiny old man of 94, he started by loudly, emphatically welcoming “citoyens et citoIENNES! Male and FEMALE citizens!” in French and English, to which the audience laughed and cheered loudly. He spoke about how lucky we are to live in an age with the United Nations, which makes the task of justice easier. Friends, every person I talked to agreed that Stéphane Hessel is our hero and we are all in love with him. Watch his entire speech when it is online. He is passionate, engaging and charming. And his biography is amazing. He was interviewed last time he was in NYC for the English-language publication of his book “Indignez-Vous!” (“Time For Outrage” although I would translate it as “Get Pissed Off!”) and you can watch that interview here.
After he spoke and the crowd once again burst into enthusiastic applause Pierre Galland said that he was the exception to the no-applause rule.
Next to him is a drawing of some of the media equipment set up in the back, and then a drawing of the first presenter, Ilan Pappé, who needs no introduction to readers of this blog. People I was with thought it was interesting that Pappé started this session of the Russell Tribunal by saying that “Zionism had a noble goal” of turning Judaism into a nationalist project, but it was unfortunately mired in a colonial realities. This is not a universally agreed-upon opinion, to say the least, among the Jewish anti-Zionists I know. He went on to make several excellent points, though, about how the Jewish settlers, who recorded “every mosquito bite” in their diaries, clearly felt that the Palestinian Arabs “their hosts, the very people who taught them how to cultivate the land” were “usurpers” and “alien natives,” an altogether mindboggling concept.
He spoke also about how Israel has created a new concept of citizens without citizenship or protection of citizenship, Palestine as a “mega-prison with two forms,” “a maximum security wing for those who resist” (i.e., Gaza) and an “open prison” for those who collaborate (the PA). Generally he is an excellent speaker, to the point and effective.
A quick note on procedure; I realized that despite sitting pretty up-front, I really had a hard time seeing the speakers clearly, so was forced to rely on the projection screen, which meant I could’ve just been watching the live stream.
Up top is a sketch of the jurors on my side of the room–John Dugard, Cynthia McKinney, Michael Mansfield, Angela Davis (facing away from us, so you just see her hair), Miguel Angel Estrella and Ronnie Kasrils.
Below is the second speaker, Peter Hansen, former head of UNRWA, who spoke about the U.N.’s responsibility and role in Palestine. That line is a direct quote about the quartet: “The idea was that the U.N. bring legitimacy, the Americans power to get things done, the E.U. money, and god knows what the Russians bring.”
He generally wasn’t hot on the Quarter, pointing out that the U.N. can’t be an equal member with its constituent states.
Ben White is charming, good-looking and hard to draw. Above him are Angela Davis and an attempt to get Stephané Hessel again. 9 out of 10 cartoonists agree that drawing old men is the best, much more fun than young fresh-faced men like Ben White, but Hessel was too far away.
Davis asked a good question– How can activists participate or get access to the U.N.?– and really that was sort of the crux of the whole matter for me, being in that room, because the U.N. is to me a sphere entirely removed from my ability to access or pressure or interact with it, so to listen to a lot of speeches about its potentials and responsibilities felt disempowering.
That feeling grew as the day wore on. After lunch were John Quigley and Vera Gowlland-Debbas (that’s an attempt at Miguel Angel Estrella in the top left) who are legal scholars and spoke at length about the legal potential for action by the General Assembly and what could be done at the U.N. to help the case of Palestine, partially at least as a way of establishing responsibility, and it was very intellectually interesting but man, what are we supposed to do with this information?
Also, the incredibly hyped security and the massive investment of time and energy by New York activists to bring this event off started to seem a little disproportionate for what was turning into, effectively, an academic legal conference from my perspective. From right to left you can read my thoughts on that, a little sketch of me fading, and some thoughts on the “elephant in the room.”
Early on Roger Waters said the “elephant in the room” was the Zionist lobby, but I think the real elephant in the room, and Quigley and Gowland-Debbas touched on this briefly, was the fact that action at the UN requires action be initiated by the Palestine Observer Mission, which is controlled by the PA, who will never take action. Multiple speakers referenced this problem in passing, that the PA had utterly failed to maximize its case at the UN after the ICJ ruling on the wall in 2004, after Cast Lead, and after the Mavi Marmara incident.
Here is Susan Akram, who spoke about refugees, Gowlland-Debbas, and another attempt at Miguel Angel Estrella. At this point I was pretty burnt out after a long day and no longer paying much attention to the speeches.
I did get encouraged to come back on Sunday though. I was feeling very unsure of why I was there, or what the goal of this Tribunal was, and here is what I heard from various people I talked to: by putting all this testimony here, in one place, we are created a powerful document and reference for the future. We are building towards a new legal concept, “sociocide” which will apparently be introduced in greater depth on Sunday, and that should also be a day with more solutions, more action ideas presented, more discussion of moving forward.
The goal of this Tribunal is not to present two sides of an argument and then make a decision– we know what the crimes are. The goal is to bear witness. Also, from the gathering of VIPs involved, apparently it’s getting a lot of press coverage, which is great.
Still, with all this talk of putting pressure on the U.N., on the national member states, with all this take of the failure of the U.N. and the U.S. to take action, I am waiting for someone to mention my favorite three letters: B, D and S. Maybe Sunday.