Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa
ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 6, n.º 1 (May-October 2015), pp. 30-50
Luís Moita
Director/Professor, Department of International Relations, Autonomous University of Lisbon
(UAL) Portugal. Director, Observatory of Foreign Relations (OBSERVARE)
Coordinator, Master in Peace and War studies, Scientific Council member, UAL.
Professor, Institute of Higher Military Studies, and lecturer, National Defense Institute
Vice-Rector, UAL (1992-2009) and Coordinator, Socrates Institute for Continued Training
Integrated researcher, "Cities and Regions: paradiplomacy in Portugal".
There is dialectic between public opinion and the enforcement of justice by the competent
authorities. History contains numerous examples where international opinion movements
demonstrate against judicial decisions, since, either by act or by omission, established
jurisdictions sometimes pronounce questionable verdicts or leave unpunished crimes that
were committed. These demonstrations take a variety of forms, ranging from the
international commission of inquiry to the truth and reconciliation commissions. Among such
exercises of citizenship from civil society, the so-called “opinion tribunals” stand out, whose
first major initiative was due to Lord Bertrand Russell in the 1960s. Following this tradition,
the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal has been very active between 1979 and 2014, organizing
deliberative assemblies and pronouncing decisions in a “quasi-judicial” framework. Its critics
point a finger at the resemblance of justice used for ideological purposes, but the legitimacy
of these initiatives, backed by current international law, is defendable for their capacity to
shake consciences and for being a legal innovation at the service of the right of peoples.
International law; public opinion; opinion tribunals; peoples’ rights; legal constructivism
How to cite this article
Moita, Luís (2015). "Opinion Tribunals and the Permanent People's Tribunal". JANUS.NET e-
journal of International Relations, Vol. 6, N.º 1, May-October 2015. Consulted [online] on
date of last visit, observare.ual.pt/janus.net/en_vol6_n1_art3
Article received on February, 5 2015 and accepted for publication on April, 6 2015
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 6, n.º 1 (May-October 2015), pp. 30-50
Opinion Tribunals and the Permanent People's Tribunal
Luís Moita
Luís Moita
Although not always widely known, the existence of “opinion tribunals” has been a
reality for the past decades. As a rule, they act in the international arena. Even when
dealing with internal issues of a particular country, they address global issues and the
echoes of their deliberations extend beyond national borders. The purpose of this paper
is to critically reflect on the nature and role of opinion tribunals, particularly the
Permanent People’s Tribunal, created in Bologna in 1979. This reflection is part of a
research project about international jurisdiction conducted by OBSERVARE, the
international relations research unit of Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa1
The term “opinion tribunal” encompasses two concepts: the idea of “tribunal” is
immediately associated with the enforcement of justice based on a legal norm; the
concept of “opinion” refers to the somehow diffuse idea of public opinion, in which
collective feelings, widely shared trends of ideas and beliefs insistently emphasized in
public manifest themselves. There is a peculiar dialectic between law and public opinion
in our case, between national and international law and international public opinion.
Due to their imperative nature and also to their gaps, laws enforced by the courts
impact their influence on public opinion, projecting their values on them, disseminating
rules of conduct and promoting consensus around commonly accepted principles,
sometimes leaving issues unresolved; conversely, the sensitivity of public opinion
displays interfere in the formulation of laws, require their enforcement or refute their
failure. As a French sociologist of international relations defined wisely:
Public opinion and international law should not be confused and
gain nothing if they were to be confused. It is the inevitable and
necessary tension between them that may lead to a bit more
fairness in the world. If lawyers were to be freed of the pressure of
public opinion, they would risk becoming strictly technicians of the
established order. If opinion was to be left to itself, it would risk
wandering endlessly in search of its projects: only law can help it
1 When preparing this text I received valuable indications and suggestions from Gianni Tognoni (Secretary
General of the PPT) and Piero Basso, former comrades in mobilizing causes, as well as from Simona
Fraudatario (of the Lelio Basso International Foundation). My colleagues Mario Losano, of the University of
Eastern Piedmont, and Miguel Santos Neves, of Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa, enriched the original
text with important comments and suggestions and other colleagues, jurists Patrícia Galvão Teles,
Constança Urbano de Sousa, Mateus Kowalski and Pedro Trovão do Rosário, helped overcoming my
limitations in this field. Brígida Brito offered meticulous support in all methodological aspects. To all I give
special thanks.
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 6, n.º 1 (May-October 2015), pp. 30-50
Opinion Tribunals and the Permanent People's Tribunal
Luís Moita
realize its ideal by providing it with the staff and the institutions of
a new world. Accordingly, it is in the interest of the community of
human beings that the dialogue between international law and
public opinion never ceases. (Merle, 1985: 97).
Having accepted this viewpoint, prior clarification is still required: one should not
perceive “opinion tribunal” as a trial carried out by public opinion. The concept of public
opinion is too volatile to support the consistency of a founded, dispassionate and
weighted judgement. Justice cannot be at the mercy of the emotions of current opinion
or of the vicissitudes of published views. Legal procedures, in their rigour and technical
complexity, in their connection to the current legislation, in their respect for the
guarantees of accused persons, are not comparable to floating perceptions and
preferences, however widespread they may be. Still, that does not prevent, quite the
opposite, consensus around certain principles from being gathered, so as to anticipate
norms that have not yet been legislated which may later be legally enforced, or to
protest against the insufficient implementation of international laws, or to fill legal
loopholes or institutional omissions responsible for the impunity of criminals.
Opinion movements and court rulings
The history of the twentieth century is dotted with examples of opinion movements that
acted as critical conscience regarding controversial acts in the enforcement of justice.
Sometimes, their impact was limited to restricted circles of informed elites. In other
cases, they had a long echo in public opinion. It is worth remembering some
emblematic cases that were symbolic moments in the dialectic between law
enforcement and international public opinion.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the famous Dreyfus Affair shook public French
and international opinion, with the particularity of disclosing perverse anti-Semitism
reactions and triggering vehement protests that later led to justice being made. Alfred
Dreyfus, an officer of Jewish origin, held posts of responsibility in the French army and
in 1895 was accused of spying in favour of Germany, when the resentments of the
Franco-Prussian war were still felt. After having been dispossessed of his post and
deported to a distant island, Dreyfus always claimed his innocence and his case raised
a wave of indignation that led to his credibility being restored.
A few decades later, the United States were shaken by a tremendous miscarriage of
justice that led to the death sentence of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. These
two Italian immigrants, anarchists, carriers of illegal weapons, were suspected of
murder and robbery, arrested in 1920 and convicted in court for murder, despite the
absence of evidence and the massive appeal against their conviction: solidarity
committees were created, large demonstrations were held in several countries and
eminent international figures claimed for their release. All was in vain and Saco and
Vanzetti were electrocuted seven years later. It was not until 1973 that the truth was
officially restored and the memory of the two anarchists posthumously rehabilitated.
Meanwhile, the rise of National Socialism in Germany had a dramatic episode that
marked both Hitler’s escalating seizure of power and the anti-Communism hatred of his
regime: the fire at the Reichstag the palace of the Berlin Parliament in February
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 6, n.º 1 (May-October 2015), pp. 30-50
Opinion Tribunals and the Permanent People's Tribunal
Luís Moita
1933. The Nazi investigation identified a suspect, a young left wing Dutch who ended
up sentenced to death, and the blame was attributed to the Communists, leading to the
arrest of many thousands of people who resisted Nazism. However, in September of
the same year, the “ Legal Commission of Enquiry into the Burning of the Reichstag”
was set up in London and organized a counter-case that concluded that the Nazi
leaders were likely to be guilty2
Between 1936 and 1938, the Moscow Trials triggered major international
repercussions. On the orders of Stalin, a massive purge was carried out that physically
killed most of the Soviet elite. Following forged complaints or "confessions" of
convenience, the courts pronounced ruthless sentences against the ruling class,
especially against Trotsky and his followers. The European Left reacted with ambiguity
to the events, despite the severe criticism of people like the surrealist poet André
Breton and the Marxist Victor Serge; an international investigation commission was
created in the United States, chaired by the prestigious philosopher of morals John
Dewey, who concluded that Trotsky was innocent, despite the fact that the majority of
the members of the commission distanced from his ideas
Another trial, also in the United States, that caused intense international outcry was the
one involving the Rosenberg couple after the end of World War II. They were accused
of spying on the nuclear program in favour of the USSR, which would have allowed the
Soviet Union to accelerate the production of the atomic bomb. Trialled in 1951 and
executed in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were Jewish and communism
sympathizers and even today there is controversy about their guilt, especially that of
his wife Ethel. Numerous prominent world figures, such as Einstein, Pius XII, Sartre,
and Brecht protested against the sentence, denouncing primary anti-communism and
the latent anti-Semitism, asking for clemency for a couple that was convicted without
conclusive evidence.
In their symbolic strength, all the above mentioned cases illustrate the tension between
the enforcement of legal norms and international public opinion, as well as between
formal bodies that have judicial authority and informal bodies that contest them. Like a
kind of dialogue or confrontation between powers and counter-powers, a dialectical
opposition and complementarity between legal judgments and currents of opinion
emerges. The enforcement of justice, fallible as it is, vulnerable to all sorts of abuses, is
not limited to the jurisdiction of the courts and extends itself to the social capacity of
protest, which does not mean that the latter has any guarantee of being right or any
prerogative of "moral superiority." By act or omission, whether due to deficit of
interpretation or due to a legal void, the law, and especially international law, does not
always respond to the demands of complex human situations. Hence this apparent
historical necessity of creating correction, rehabilitation and contesting moments as an
antidote to the potential perversion of justice caused by its own agents.
Perhaps it is this very same need to do justice outside the conventional structures that
leads to the creation of special bodies when regular courts do not seem to be the most
appropriate places to judge collective or individual behaviour, as is the case of truth
and reconciliation commissions. There are known initiatives in this area, such post-
apartheid South Africa or Latin American societies after the military dictatorships.
2 For a detailed analysis of this case see Klinghoffer, A.J. and Klinghoffer, J.A. 2002: 11-50.
3 For more detailed information, see also Klinghoffer, A.J. and Klinghoffer, J.A. 2002: 51-101.
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 6, n.º 1 (May-October 2015), pp. 30-50
Opinion Tribunals and the Permanent People's Tribunal
Luís Moita
Seeking to avoid the settling accounts that are likely to reopen wounds of the past, but
also taking as inadmissible the impunity of those responsible for the crimes committed,
such commissions have had the role of preserving the memory of the facts and of
determining the responsibility of political actors, with the aim of obtaining recognition,
disclosure, forgiveness and reconciliation, and not so much punishment. In these cases,
the wisdom of the transition phase with a view to consolidating democracy prevails,
more than the mechanical enforcement of criminal laws.
There was a similar process in Rwanda as a therapy against the memory of the tragic
genocide of the Tutsis perpetrated by Hutu militias between April and June 1994, which
killed over 800,000 Rwandans and forced nearly two million people to flee. A special
international tribunal was set up to indict those responsible for the crimes, but a large
number of prisoners, over 100,000, remained in the country, for which reason the
official courts were unable to prosecute all cases. The local government encouraged
resorting to the traditional conflict resolution institution - called Gacaca - as a way to
mobilize the population for the fulfilment of justice, with emphasis on the role of the
elders and the function of social integration, according to the best African traditions.
The aforementioned examples attest the variety of ways that have been used to find
solutions to challenge or complement the role of established judicial systems, either
through opinion movements, or international commissions of inquiry, truth and
reconciliation commissions, or via customary practices, in the aforesaid tension
between law and public opinion. Ultimately, this action can even be conducted by
individuals, as shown in the special case of the blog of the great American jurist
Richard Falk, one of the most influential names in the field of international law4
. It is a
blog he created on the day he turned 80 and is an impressive repository of his
independent and critical thinking on legal and political issues, with a title that is, in
itself, a programme: Global Justice in the 21st Century.
International jurisdictions and opinion tribunals
For centur