Mobilising for a Just World: Legal Mobilization for Whom?

Mobilising for a Just World: Legal Mobilization for Whom?

Both scholars and practitioners engaged in either researching or advancing legal mobilization recognize that law can be used to guide legal interventions seeking to trigger transformative justice. A persistent question ...

Misleading narratives distort antisemitism discourses

Misleading narratives distort antisemitism discourses

Bigotry, in all its forms, is steadily rising. Clearly, being non-racist is not enough; we need to be anti-racist to be able to combat race-related bigotry once and for all. ...

Countering attempts to undermine the rule of law through lawfare in Suriname by Jeff Handmaker

In November 2019, an all-women panel of judges presiding over a decade-long court martial in Suriname convicted Desiré Delano Bouterse, the country’s current president, for international crimes that include torture and extra-judicial executions. While legal mobilisation can legitimately be used to bring about justice, Bouterse and his supporters have used lawfare to try to prevent his trial from proceeding. The trial eventually took place and Bouterse was sentenced to 20 years in prison, while some of his co-accused were acquitted. Bouterse remains in office following the judgement, and it now remains to be seen whether legal mobilisation will triumph over ongoing attempts to use lawfare to undermine the rule of law.

The December Murders

Apart from its historic significance, the case against Bouterse and his co-accused for international crimes is a vivid illustration of the use of lawfare and legal mobilisation, both of which I have been following closely as an independent trial observer and as a researcher generally. The case concerns events that took place in December 1982, referred to by many as the so-called December Murders, at the time when Bouterse served as a commander in the Suriname army after having participated in a military coup. Various accounts of the events reported that 16 men, a combination of civilians and soldiers, all of whom were openly critical of Bouterse, were arrested in the middle of the night, brought to a military base at Fort Zeelandia (dating back to the colonial era), lined up against a wall, and shot. The bodies were brought to a local hospital for investigation, where it became evident that the men who perished had not only been executed without a trial, but had also been tortured.

A trade unionist who managed to survive the incident, Fred Derby, later filed an official statement about what had happened in 1982, which became a crucial part of the evidence presented once the court martial was established in 2007. Three years later, in 2010, despite the ongoing trial, Bouterse was elected president, a position he subsequently used to hinder the trial’s development.

At the time the court handed down its judgement in November 2019, which had been twelve years in the making, Bouterse was abroad on a trade mission in China. He returned to Suriname a few days later, perhaps after obtaining confirmation that a warrant for his arrest had not been issued, receiving a large and enthusiastic welcome at the airport from his supporters. Statements made through his lawyer questioning the legitimacy of the court’s judgement, and which undermine the rule of law, have been published in the local media.

Using lawfare to bend the law in one’s favour

As head of a trial observation mission appointed by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in Geneva, I have been following this trial closely since May 2012. The case has revealed several examples of lawfare, whereby numerous law-based manoeuvres on the part of Bouterse himself, as well as his legal representative, his appointed officials, and members of his political party in the legislature have sought to undermine the rule of law in Suriname, and, more specifically, to stop the trial from taking place.

The court martial took over a decade to issue its judgement, during which period there was extensive use of lawfare to either delay or completely shut down the trial. These included legislating an Act of Amnesty (later declared by the court to be unconstitutional), ordering the prosecutor to suspend the trial, and otherwise seeking to interfere with the prosecution process through replacing the Minister of Justice. Neither of these lawfare efforts were successful and the court’s judgement stands.

The case has also revealed many examples of legal mobilisation, whereby various actors have played different roles to counter the use of lawfare and uphold the rule of law. The families of those who were murdered have continually campaigned to have Bouterse and his accomplices brought before an independent criminal tribunal. During the trial itself, international organisations such as the ICJ have called for the respect of international fair trial standards, and journalists (mostly local) have consistently sought to ensure that the case was correctly reported. In all instances, rigorous attention to the correctness of law-based arguments were a prominent feature during the trial that spanned several years; this proved to be an effective strategy, aimed at preserving the fair and equal application of justice and the rule of law in Suriname, values that are widely shared in the country following hundreds of years of colonial rule.

Reactions to the trial

While several prominent news outlets, including several in the Netherlands, as well as the Associated Press, Al Jazeera, the New York Times, and the BBC briefly reported on the judgement, the trial itself has not enjoyed much attention outside of Suriname. Inside Suriname, however, there have been extensive reactions from various actors who have been closely involved in the case, either seeking to uphold or undermine the rule of law.

Betty de Goede, a leader/founder of the Organisation for Justice and Peace (OJP) in Suriname, which represents many families of those who were killed in December 1982, observed at an inter-denominational service organised by the OJP that the rule of law held much value to the people of Suriname, and hence “the judgement (against Bouterse) cannot be ignored”. At the same service, Soeshila Baldew-Malhoe, a prominent Hindu theologian in Suriname, was more strident, declaring that while “Bouterse had no respect for the rule of law” he was warned that

… people must know that every action has consequences. Mr. Bouterse should have known then that the truth would one day come to light … it gives a good feeling to know that the rule of law is alive… everything depends on the rule of law, and when justice is given, everyone must adhere to it, regardless of the person’s social position.

Ignoring potential repercussions against them, the legal community in Suriname has been active and outspoken, including attorney Gerold Sewcharan, who represented Edgar Ritfield, one of Bouterse’s co-accused. Ritfield was one of those acquitted by the court, and characterised Bouterse as a “convicted felon”.

However, a warrant for Bouterse’s arrest has yet to be issued, and in the meantime, there have been efforts to politicise the judgement and undermine the judiciary. One of the main opposition parties, the “Democratic Alternative” (DA), published an Open Letter to the president, calling on him to resign. This has, however, not caused Bouterse to reconsider his decision to remain in power, nor has he lost credibility within the political party he chairs, the NDP, which has condemned the judgement as being “politically motivated”. Whatever happens next, it is certain that many more people, both in Suriname and abroad, will be following the outcome with considerable interest and anticipation.

Image Credit: sunsju on Flickr

About the author:

Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.

He is a regular author for Bliss. Read all his posts here. 



Legal mobilization to end impunity for international crimes by Jeff Handmaker

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Confronting Apartheid Through Critical Discussion by Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo and Jeff Handmaker

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Distorted anti-Semitism allegations in UK’s Labour Party are a cover for Israeli apartheid by Jeff Handmaker

On 18 February 2019, Luciana Berger and six other British Members of Parliament (MPs) left the UK Labour Party. The most prominent reason provided by the departing MPs, led by Berger, is that the Party had become ‘institutionally anti-Semitic’, due mostly – or so it would appear – to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s outspoken criticisms of the Israeli government and military. As discussed in this blogpost, which draws on a longer article published on Mondoweiss, these allegations are both dangerous distortions of anti-Semitism and serve as a shameful cover for Israel’s regime of apartheid.

In the extensive reporting that followed the departure of the Labour MPs, a Spectator columnist alleged that this was the beginning of the end for Labour, while the Guardian claimed that the party faced an anti-Semitism crisis. It was hardly mentioned in any of this reporting that the seven Labour Party members who decided to leave were all closely tied with Labour Friends of Israel, an avowedly pro-Israel organisation. Berger is its former director.

A report by the Media Reform Coalition identified ‘myriad inaccuracies and distortions’ in the reporting of anti-Semitism claims against the Labour Party, which prompted a public statement by prominent journalists and scholars. Fomenting a strategy of disinformation is consistent with claims made by Jonathan Cook, a highly respected author and long-time journalist, who has established that the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs has long been actively seeking to marginalise its critics through a range of measures.

But where did the anti-Semitism claim come from?

The IHRA Definition

The contemporary ‘debate’ over anti-Semitism within the Labour Party relates to August 2018, when pro-Israel members of the party proposed the incorporation of a highly controversial definition of anti-Semitism. Called the “Working Definition of Antisemitism” and drafted in 2016 by a group called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), the IHRA definition contains vague and dangerously far-reaching conflations of criticisms of Israel and references to the holocaust.

The lobby to incorporate the IHRA definition was fierce and unrelenting, largely led by Berger and others affiliated with Labour Friends of Israel. At the time of the August 2018 debate, there were even efforts to smear Hajo Meyer, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz who had once spoken at a Labour Party rally where he made comparisons between the Nazi regime and his observations of Israeli policies. Meyer, an outspoken retired theoretical physicist, recorded his experiences in a moving memoir The End of Judaism: An Ethical Tradition Betrayed, published in 2012.

Steven Garside, a member of the UK Labour Party and Palestine Solidarity Campaign who strongly opposed the IHRA definition, maintained that erroneous allegations of anti-Semitism were in fact related to Corbyn’s harsh criticisms of the Israeli government and military. Ash Sarkar of the Sandberg Instituut condemned the move as a threat to free expression. Prominent human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson warned that the definition would suppress legitimate criticism of Israel while failing to cover genuine cases of anti-Semitism.

But despite these criticisms and warnings, Labour ultimately decided to incorporate the definition in full.

Since then, emboldened by the wide-ranging IHRA definition, groups such as Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Chronicle, with very little substantiation, have sought to equate criticism of Israel as “Jew hate”.

For liberal supporters of Israel, adopting the IHRA definition has been a crucial strategy. However, the true aim of such vacuous, yet highly damaging allegations is to avoid a critical dialogue on Israel’s policies of apartheid against Palestinians. Unlike South Africa apartheid, which from the 1960s became increasingly reported, understood and eventually condemned, Israeli apartheid has been shamefully underreported and is far less understood.

So what does Israeli apartheid look like?

The many forms of apartheid in Israel

Israeli apartheid takes many forms, whether this be the overt racism enshrined in Israel’s 2018 “Nation-State law” that discontinued Arabic as an official language, which is now being challenged in Court, or Israel’s continued blockade and bombing of Gaza (since 2005) that is currently the subject of a preliminary examination by the International Criminal Court.

Apartheid also takes the form of literally hundreds of insidious Israeli military orders, including Order 101 that makes it impossible for Palestinians to legally protest. Israeli regulations make it virtually impossible for Palestinians to build a home. This is due to the fact that Israel’s land and zoning regulations are, according to Israel’s Basic Law, oriented around “preserving” the land for Israel’s Jewish inhabitants.

But the most insidious manifestations of Israeli apartheid are the decades-long, everyday experiences of Palestinians. Farmers have to stand in long lines to reach their sheep in the agricultural village of Qalandia (that is surrounded by a high, concrete wall). School children in Hebron cannot walk to school without being stopped daily by soldiers at a military checkpoint to check the contents of their schoolbags. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has heard numerous cases of official abuse against Palestinian women, including a seven-month pregnant woman assaulted at a checkpoint.

Given these examples, and much more, of Israel’s apartheid policies, it is exasperating that there is such a resistance to criticise Israel. And yet, this is exactly what happens. Liberal groups such as Labour Friends of Israel in the UK, Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) in the Netherlands and others repeatedly fuel the public’s outrage on anti-Semitism through disingenuous use of the IHRA definition, yet simultaneously maintain a silence that Israel’s policies amount to apartheid, not unlike the approach of like-minded liberal groups in Israel.

Apartheid cannot compete with a global social justice movement

Just as was ultimately the case in South Africa, neither Israel’s government, nor its most adamant, liberal supporters, can compete with a global social justice movement committed to ending Israel’s regime of apartheid. Rooted in equal rights claims, this movement is bolstered by growing judicial attention to Israel’s commission of war crimes and a highly successful, Palestinian-led global campaign of boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS).

The success of the BDS movement is acknowledge to have transformed the debate on Israel-Palestine. Indeed, as prominent Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has put it, BDS has been a true success story for the movement, succeeding to undermine Israel’s strongly cultivated image as a liberal democracy.

The conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that just like those who turned a blind eye for decades to apartheid in South Africa, the failure of Luciana Berger, Labour Friends of Israel, CIDI, and others to confront Israeli apartheid will place them all on the wrong side of history.

Image Credit:

About the author:

Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.

He is a regular author for Bliss. Read all his posts here.