Citizens' Tribunal

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

Powerful countries — such as the US or the UK or others — are seemingly free to ignore international law and other recognized norms of acceptable behavior when it suits their government. If other countries and international organizations are impotent against such transgressions, NGOs and other civil society groups (who have even fewer resources) face almost insurmountable hurdles for legally challenging these actions.


Non-governmental organizations or other citizen groups with few to no means by which to challenge what they perceive to be moral wrongs are the main users of this pattern. Unfortunately the use of this pattern is limited generally to democratic societies or other places where its confrontational approach is tolerated. There are countries, for example, where a tribunal directed at the United States could be convened, while a tribunal directed against the government of the host country would be strictly prohibited. Unfortunately there are few, if any, public or legal means where citizens of countries like North Korea, Uzbekistan and other countries that are isolated from the network of international relations, can challenge their government's policy without fearing for their life and liberty.


Civil Society faced with what they perceive as serious crimes that are being perpetrated by governments, has devised the concept of a "Citizen's Tribunal." Part legal proceedings, part theater, part publicly speaking "truth to power", the concept has been expressed most strongly with the World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI) condemning the invasion of Iraq by the United States.

According to Richard Falk, professor emeritus from Princeton University, "The WTI was loosely inspired by the Bertrand Russell tribunal held in Copenhagen and Stockholm in 1967 to protest the Vietnam War, which documented with extensive testimony the allegations of criminality associated with the American role in Vietnam. The Russell tribunal featured the participation of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and other notable European left intellectuals. It relied on international law and morality to condemn the war but made no pretension of being a legal body, and its jury contained no international law experts." The World Tribunal on Iraq had its specific roots in a session of the Permanent Tribunal of the People that was held before the war in Rome. The sessions of the WTI began in Brussels in March 2004 and finished in June 2005 in Istanbul. Sessions were also held in Berlin, Stockholm, Hiroshima, Rome, New York, and Barcelona.

The work of the WTI was divided into a Panel of Advocates and a Jury of Conscience. The role of the Panel of Advocates was to document the charges against George Bush, Tony Blair, and others through analysis and testimony. This body would then present the case to a Jury of Conscience which was "composed of distinguished moral authority personalities from around the world, to pass judgment on the actors and their actions from the perspective of international law."

One question is how does the "other side" participate — if at all? Can they submit evidence or provide testimony? In other words, how does a tribunal differ from a trial? For one thing, the U.S., for example, the U.S. would undoubtedly skip a Citizen's Tribunal since it has declined to appear before the World Court as a defendant. A Citizen's Tribunal is not a court (it obviously has no powers of enforcement, for example) and is not obligated to emulate one. At least in the case of the WTI, a Citizen's Tribunal "is self-consciously an organ of civil society, with its own potential enforcement by way of economic boycotts, civil disobedience and political campaigns." It is not designed to find the truth but to bring the truth to light. As Falk points, out, the WTI as an instrument of civil society: "proceeds from a presumption that the allegations of illegality and criminality are valid and that its job is to reinforce that conclusion as persuasively and vividly as possible.

Legitimacy, however, as in the legal system, is a very big issue. If the tribunal does not seem legitimate, it can more easily be portrayed as a charade. Legitimacy can be maximized by providing unimpeachable authorities and by providing strong corroborating evidence including documentation and expert testimony.

As a direct and public challenge to power and authority the Citizen's Tribunal faces numerous challenges in addition to difficult task of establishing legitimacy. One of the most important of these challenges is irrelevance. The unequivocal repudiation of the powers-that-be is unlikely to be covered in any serious way by the media. Additionally, the possibly marginal nature of the group sponsoring a Citizen's Tribunal places it far from the centers of power and is thus questioned about the legitimacy of its actions.

Since the power of a Citizen's Tribunal relies on its symbolic nature, publicity is important. One approach is to bring in a broad coalition to organize the Tribunal. It is important to get people to the event and to send out publicity afterwards (through, for example, the web and DVDs). The WTI submitted its report to the United Nations. On the other hand, exposure and publicity can be risky — counter demonstrations, arrests, intimidation and thuggery, in addition to media condemnation, might be in store for the conveners.

Many challenges present themselves while organizing and conducting the event: Who will participate? How is the agenda organized? Where will the funding come from? How will security issues be handled? And of course, the idea of multiple venues, however attractive the idea is, increases the magnitude of the logistical challenges considerably.

Although Falk's statement below (from a WTI press release) is associated with the World Tribunal on Iraq, the basic approach and philosophy of that effort can serve as a basic model (that can be modified) for another tool for people without extensive resources who are struggling with issues of state violence and other urgent issues of our times.

"The WTI is opposing aggressive war, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. It is not opposing the governments or the United Nations. Indeed it hopes to create pressure from below that will encourage law-abiding governments and the UN to do their proper job of protecting weaker countries and their populations against such illegalities. And beyond this protection we are promoting a world movement of peoples and governments to realize a humane form of globalization that is equitable with respect to the world economy, legitimate in upholding the human rights of all, and dedicated above all else to creating the conditions for sustainable peace based on justice for every nation on earth."


In certain situations, civil society organizations are moved to protest perceived crimes of sovereign nations. The Citizens' Tribunal has the potential to become a powerful tool to raise issues to more visible levels than governments or the media are likely to do on their own.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Powerful countries sometimes ignore international law and other norms of acceptable behavior. NGOs and other groups face tremendous hurdles when challenging these actions. Citizens' Tribunals, such as the World Tribunal on Iraq condemning the US invasion of Iraq, are part legal proceedings, part theater, and part publicly speaking "truth to power." In spite of many challenges, a Citizens' Tribunal can be a powerful tool.

Pattern status: 
Information about introductory graphic: 
Session at the People's Permanent Tribunal, Mexico, 2013