Article – Boyle and Kobayashi on people-led war crimes tribunals

A new article in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space by Mark Boyle and Audrey Kobayashi explores the meanings and possibilities of people-led war crimes tribunals (PWCTs). It is a extremely valuable contribution to ongoing debates concerning the imagined universalism of enlightenment ethics encoded in international law and to the varied outcomes of PWCTs, often (and most significantly) beyond the legal and juridical. The article particularly focuses on the Russell Tribunal on Vietnam, an initiative led by philosopher and activist Bertrand Russell and chaired by Jean-Paul Sartre across three sessions between 1966-67 (see p. 5-6). I found real resonance in Boyle and Kobayashi’s intricate examination of the outcomes of this action, not in terms of the judgement, but what they call the ‘hermeneutic resources’, a corpus of discursive tools “which anticolonial movements (not least in Vietnam) and subsequent PWCTs have found useful in pressing home cases against colonial and neocolonial violence” (p. 13). These resources stem from the challenge to the silence of international law concerning the events of the conflict and illuminating the possibility of alternative ethical positions. In doing so the authors are challenging the ethics that underpins discourses of (Western-centric) humanitarianism, an area of critique that has prompted some significant and productive interventions of late from Eyal Weizman and Didier Fassin. Boyle and Kobayashi challenge the imagined universalism of humanitarian ethics, but they are careful not substitute this for ethical relativism. By centring the argument on Sartre’s commentaries and writings on ethics, in particular his desire to espouse an nonfoundation (though not relativist) ethical position where humans “transcend alienation and become products of their own labour” (p. 12).

I have been trying to conceptualise the effects of tribunals in a chapter I am writing for a book on the Commons (stemming from the Shrinking Commons workshop last year) and in particular the ways in which the provision of testimony, insofar as this is an act that challenges crimes against humanity, can be conceptualised as a form of common resource against violence. Links can be drawn here to the work of Shoshana Felman (in The Juridical Unconscious, 2002), arguing that Hannah Arendt’s study of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem created a new idiom on the discourse of the Holocaust. But perhaps more contentiously, Marianne Hirsh and Leo Spitzer (2009) see the provision of testimony concerning crimes against humanity as a form of ‘cosmopolitan memory’ production, with the goal of incorporating “memories into an enlarged global arena, making room for additional, local, regional, national and transnational, testimonies about slavery, colonialism, genocide and subordination” (p. 165). But such an account can flatten and hollow-out the unequal power relations that stalk the enforcement of international law through transitional justice instruments (see Jeffrey and Jakala, 2015). The account of Boyle and Kobayashi is more nuanced, where the creation of PWCTs provicialises the Western, ethical, legal and juridical canon, but avoiding a the amorality of pure relativism, prefering instead to focus on “ethical paradigms born of concrete historical and geographical circumstances” (p. 14).

Alex Jeffrey, August 2015


Boyle, M., & Kobayashi, A. (2015). In the face of epistemic injustices?: on the meaning of people-led war crimes tribunals. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, DOI: 10.1177/0263775815598101

Hirsch, M., & Spitzer, L. (2009). The witness in the archive: Holocaust studies/memory studies. Memory Studies, 2(2), 151-170.

Jeffrey, A., & Jakala, M. (2015). Using courts to build states: The competing spaces of citizenship in transitional justice programmes. Political Geography,47, 43-52.


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