Whereas the first Russell Tribunal sprang from global mobilization against the Vietnam War, the origins of the 1974–1976 Russell Tribunal was inspired by the transnational mobilization against human rights violations in Brazil and Latin America.
At first, the military overthrow of Joao Goulart’s democratic government in Brazil in 1964 caused sporadic international condemnation. Protests were to some extent limited by the fact that until 1968, the new regime maintained a façade of democratic rule, although opposition was silenced and intimidated. Things changed in 1968 when the Brazilian government approved Institutional Act n.5 that closed the Parliament, disbanded political parties, denied habeas corpus, and began mass arrests and torture. Moreover, news of Brazilian violence reached Western capitals and inspired mass demonstrations against the systematic use of torture and human rights abuses in what began to be known as the gorilla’s regime.Footnote 40
The campaign on behalf of Brazilians was one of the first initiatives to position human rights at the centre of transnational mobilization. After the coup, hundreds of academics, artists and politicians fled Brazil for other Latin American countries, the USA, and Europe. Brazilian émigrés were a living testimony of the ongoing repression in their country and the backbone of a transnational solidarity movement with the Brazilian people.Footnote 41 In doing so, the campaign of solidarity with the victims of the Brazilian junta contributed to renewing European Third Worldism. Those Western groups and activists that had been denouncing the economic underdevelopment of many Third World countries and celebrating the Third World’s revolutions now began focusing on ongoing political repression, lack of democracy, and human rights violations. These became the new buzzwords of movements and campaigns in solidarity with Latin American, Asian, and African populations. Similarly, it also fuelled (and was fuelled by) the denunciation of American imperialism. Solidarity with Brazil benefited from real and alleged American responsibilities for the coup. While historians still debate the timing of US policymakers’ decision to support the coup, by the end of the 1960s, many in Latin America and Europe had reached the conclusion that the American role in the coup was not limited to the almost immediate diplomatic recognition of the new regime, but that it also encompassed clandestine operations, funding, and training.Footnote 42
It was precisely within this growing awareness of human rights violations in Brazil and US influence over the Brazilian regime that the idea of convening an opinion Tribunal to investigate Brazilian repression began to make headway. In October 1971, during a conference in Santiago in Chile, some Brazilian émigrés belonging to the Comité de denuncia da repressão no Brasil proposed to Lelio Basso convening a new Tribunal to denounce the systematic violation of human rights in Brazil.Footnote 43 Within weeks, other Brazilian émigrés who had fled to the United States, contacted Vladimir Dedijer. In discussing possible initiatives to protest Brazilian President Emilio Medici’s official visit to Washington, they informed Dedijer about the Tribunal. Basso and Dedijer tried immediately to involve Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Noam Chomsky, and the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation.Footnote 44
There were, however, some difficulties. Firstly, several members of the “first” jury had died over the previous years, including Lord Russell, and others had retired from active political commitments. Secondly, Brazil was not Vietnam. If the focus of the first Russell Tribunal was on the self-evident US military aggression against Vietnam and well-documented violations of international law, the authoritarian involution of Brazil was mostly a domestic affair, and it would have been difficult to prove any direct American involvement. On the contrary, both Basso and the representatives of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation had identified the Brazilian junta as Washington’s puppet. Hence, they were determined to prove American responsibility both for the coup and for human rights violations occurring in Brazil. To them, what was happening in Brazil was a “new form of sub-imperialistic development” whose main objective was to give the USA control over Brazilian economic resources.Footnote 45 For this reason, it was necessary to put the American government and its neo-colonial foreign policy in the dock. As Basso later put it, the Tribunal’s objective was not limited to denunciation of human rights violations, but encompassed the identification of “the forces, mechanisms and processes which were at the root of these violations”.Footnote 46
From this original blueprint, it is possible to find three major differences between the assumptions of the first Russell Tribunal and those of the second.
Firstly, there was a different evaluation of American imperialism. By 1972, the idea that the American empire was destined to be defeated by Third World resistance had failed. On the contrary, the Brazilian case demonstrated a renewed capability for America to impose its control over the periphery of its empire, as well as its economic exploitation. Basso himself believed that America’s “economic neo-colonialism was even more dangerous” than its military intervention in Vietnam, for it was establishing an equally oppressive although less evident domination.Footnote 47
A second difference was the growing importance of economic self-determination for both the international debate and the organizers of the Russell Tribunal. Sartre had identified national self-determination as the background of the first Russell Tribunal. Now Basso was trying to link the new Tribunal to economic self-determination and the international debate on the New International Economic Order. It is no coincidence that between 1972, when the expression was first used, and 1974, when the “Declaration on the New International Economic Order” and the “Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States” were adopted, the UN General Assembly constantly referred to the rights of less developed countries to possess and dispose of their national resources, to control foreign direct investments, and more generally to realize a more favourable redistribution of the power of decision-making within international organizations.Footnote 48
It is against this background that Basso, Dedijer, and the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation began to focus on human rights violations in Latin America. This was the third major difference between the first and second Tribunal. Whereas discussion of international law during the International War Crimes Tribunal had focused mostly on the collective and national rights of the Vietnamese people, the second Russell Tribunal attempted to craft a synthesis between the Brazilian junta’s abuses of individuals’ rights and American imperialism’s economic predatory attitude. This was the fundamental idea of the Tribunal: the denial of the collective right of the Brazilian people to economic self-determination by the US government and American corporations was the rationale for the blatant violations of individuals’ human rights perpetrated by the Brazilian junta.
Over 1972 and 1973, news of the organization of the Tribunal spread throughout the world. Within just a few months, Lelio Basso and Vladimir Dedjier were joined by Palestinian intellectual and political scientist Abu Omar, former President of the of the Dominican Republic Juan Bosch, theologians Georges Casalis, Johann Baptist Metz, and Giulio Giraldi, French trade unionist Emilio Maspero, American sociologist James Petras, former Chilean ambassador Armando Uribe, and French lawyer François Rigaux. In addition, the Tribunal inspired dozens of groups across Western Europe, ranging from Catholic and leftist organizations, to student movements and human rights NGOs. Each group had its own ideological and political rationale for supporting the Russell Tribunal. Leftist groups and student movements were generally inclined to denounce American imperialism. In Western Germany, for example, several sections of the youth organization of the socialist party Juso established working groups on the Second Russell Tribunal and American imperialism. Later on, the entire organization gave its full support to the summoning of the Tribunal on human rights violations and American imperialism.Footnote 49 Catholic grassroots mobilization was based on a strong solidarity with coreligionists facing repression and intimidation by Latin American regimes. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council and the emergence of the controversial Liberation Theology in Latin America, many European Catholics were genuinely outraged at human rights violations occurring in Latin America. Basso and his staff identified Catholic groups as a specific target in their attempt to develop a “broad network of support committees” to increase the visibility of the Tribunal. Equally important, given the importance of Catholicism in Brazilian society, Catholics’ contribution to the organization of the Tribunal was essential to investigating and understanding the Brazilian context.Footnote 50 While the convergence between some Catholic groups and leftist organizations became fundamental to the success of the Tribunal, other Catholic groups avoided getting involved. To the more conservative Pax Christi, for example, Marxist forces could impose their agenda on the Tribunal, thus cancelling Catholics’ contribution.Footnote 51
A similar tension shaped the contacts between the organizers of the Tribunal and human rights NGOs. On the one hand, individual Amnesty International activists and local chapters were enthusiastic supporters of the Tribunal. Similarly, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers adhered to the Tribunal, and its president Jo Normand later served as member of the jury. On the other hand, the international Secretariat of Amnesty International was more sceptical and refused to adhere to the Tribunal because of its political and militant nature. Indeed, Amnesty International mobilization for human rights was different from that of the second Russell Tribunal. The former very narrowly focused on some specific violations of human rights, was officially apolitical, and had no direct interest in investigating the political, economic, or social conditions that made such human rights violations possible. The latter wanted to document human rights violations in order to denounce Washington’s economic exploitation as their main cause. Such a perspective offered enough room for a political approach to human rights violations. After all, as one critic of the Tribunal commented, this was criticizing the USA for Brazilian violations of human rights, but not the Soviet Union for human rights violations in Czechoslovakia.Footnote 52 This was a well-grounded charge. Not only was Lelio Basso receiving financial support from the Soviet Union, but his determination to prove the US government’s responsibility for Latin American violations of human rights was crucial to the entire organization of the Tribunal.Footnote 53
Finally, news of the organization of the Tribunal reached many Latin American opposition groups and parties. They began urging the organizing committee not to limit its investigation to Brazil and to denounce ongoing violations of human rights in other Latin American countries.Footnote 54 The June 1973 coup in Uruguay and the September 1973 coup in Chile convinced Basso that it was necessary to broaden the focus of the Tribunal in order to understand, document, and denounce the role of the USA in the weakening of Latin American democracies. As Basso put it at the opening of the Second Russell Tribunal, it was not just a question of “adding one country to another”, but also of pointing out that between “the Brazilian and Chilean generals, as well as between the two police forces, there was an agreement that contributed to the coup. But the same had happened with Uruguay and Bolivia. Brazil was not only a case of military dictatorship but also served as a model that tended to spread to all of Latin America”, and the USA was its master.Footnote 55
The Chilean coup also had another effect on the organization of the Tribunal, since it focused world opinion on the violent repression of political opposition and on the US government’s responsibility. As Basso put it, “American imperialism could not celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine in a more successful way than with orchestrating a coup and with the killing of its democratically elected President”.Footnote 56 Moreover, after the coup, thousands of political refugees fled to Europe. Chileans joined Brazilian émigrés in offering their testimonies about human rights abuses in their own country and disseminating news about the Tribunal. This was, for example, what Chile Democrático and the Frente Brasileira de Informações did. The former was an organization of Chilean opponents and émigrés funded in Rome in December 1973 by Jorge Arrate, who had been a minister in Salvador Allende’s Chile. The latter was established in 1970 in Algiers by former governor of Pernambuco Miguel Arraes. Both groups provided the Tribunal with “political and material support”.Footnote 57
In November 1973, the Tribunal was given a fundamental boost when thousands of European activists protested the international trade fair Brasil Export 73 which had been organized in Brussels by the Brazilian government. The official aim of the fair was to celebrate the economic success of Brazil and strengthen its international trade. However, its most important outcome was in fuelling transnational protests against the regime. European leftist political parties, Catholic and Christian groups, Latin American émigrés, human rights activists, and networks in solidarity with Brazilian victims of the ongoing repression took to the streets chanting slogans against the Brazilian government, such as “No to Brasil Export; no to exploitation”, or carrying signs denouncing the American empire. A leaflet recalled that “in Brazil, in Chile, in all Latin America—as in Vietnam—people are fighting for their freedom and to build their future against the same enemy: Fascism, Imperialism, America”. These slogans were shaped by traditional ideas against the American empire, ideas that had led many anti-war activists to oppose American imperialism and support decolonization. Yet, the presence of Amnesty International and other human rights groups was a new element that introduced new slogans and buzzwords against torture, political imprisonment and repression.Footnote 58 Lelio Basso explicitly linked these two forms of protest. The very same day that the Brazilian government was presenting its economic fair, Basso was in Brussels to announce the constitution of the Tribunal. In presenting the fifteen effective and five honorary members of the jury, he clarified that their task was not limited to documenting human rights violations, but also encompassed the study of their deeper reasons in order to understand “the influence of American corporations, identifying what links the military regime to international capital”. In other words, the Tribunal wanted to prove that human rights violations in Latin America were a consequence of American imperialism.Footnote 59
The Tribunal held its first session in Rome on 31 March 1974. The formal accusation was read by Miguel Arraes, who compared Brazilian economic growth to a “pre-emptive Vietnamization”, whose aim was to grant American corporations all the natural, financial and industrial resources that should belong to the Brazilian people. In addition, he pointed out that Brazil was just the first of a “series of similar regimes that took power in the area under the influence of the United States”.Footnote 60
Following the model of the first Tribunal, the second Russell Tribunal called experts to explain how American capitalism worked in Latin America, its history, and its responsibility for human rights violations. Italian lawyer and politician Salvatore Senese described the Brazilian government as a new form of international regime made possible by international capitalism: “The most powerful interests that support the regime [are] foreign interests. Hence the despotic nature of the regime and its contradiction with some traits of the modern nation-state, including authoritarian ones, and the compatibility of some of its features with forms of colonial rule”. From his side, anthropologist Ettore Biocca put torture in Brazil in the spotlight. To him, not only was torture a fundamental feature and pillar of the Brazilian regime, but it was also a key to favouring the interest of multinational corporations, for it was “transforming Brazil into a paradise for international investments”. Sharing Senese’s ideas on the relationship between the junta and international capitalism, Biocca defined torture as the expression “of the interests of those enormous financial, industrial and military forces that could shape and control the world”. As such, the only possible conclusion was that the Brazilian government was the perpetrator of intimidation, harassment, imprisonment, and torture, but the instigator was Washington DC behind the influence “exerted by … multinational corporations” on “Brazilian repressive forces”.Footnote 61 Even for those Brazilian witnesses who gave direct testimony of the abuses they had suffered, the USA was directly responsible for their sufferings. As René de Carvalho put it during his testimony, “in the torture room … there were American devices, those that had arrived as part of the technological aid from the United States”. Similarly, in bearing witness, Brazilian journalist Fernando Gabeira recalled that both American and Brazilian officials had interrogated him.Footnote 62
Direct testimony became central to the second Russell Tribunal. The International War Crimes Tribunal had called just a few Vietnamese citizens to bear witness to the destruction that American aggression had wrought upon the Vietnamese people, whereas witnesses at the second Russell Tribunal described and detailed abuses of human rights that they had suffered. There was a close interdependence between the voices of the victims-witnesses and those of the experts. The direct testimony of those who had been tortured or arrested for political reasons, such as filmmaker Wellington Diniz or lawyer Marco Antonio Moro, aroused compassion and indignation in public opinion. It was what historian Steve Stern labelled “testimonial truth”. Providing their direct “personal experience and witnessing”, victims of human rights abuses related “a living memory of the authentic”.Footnote 63 The perspective of scholars and experts provided a framework for reading such abuses, pointing out the responsibility of Latin American governments and, above all, that of the United States.Footnote 64 The subjective account of the witnesses’ testimony and the apparently more objective analysis of the experts together gave credibility to the entire accusatory system. Such a methodology had a dual impact. On the one hand, it triggered an emotional response from public opinion. As an Italian journalist put it, “what remains is not the socio-economic and political analyses made by the speakers (based on precise ideological assumptions and based on partial points of view), but the direct account of the witnesses, at times victims of the repression itself”.Footnote 65 On the other hand, it established a link between human rights violations in Brazil and the responsibility of the US government. In Basso’s words: “we have moved from the observation of evidence to the search for causes”, a path that led directly to Washington, the CIA, and the “complex mechanism” of Brazilian “economic dependence” on the United States. For this reason, at the conclusion of the session, not only did the Tribunal found the United States guilty of ongoing violations of human rights in Brazil, Basso also announced that it would summon new sessions of the Tribunal. These would further investigate the role of American and Western corporations in the economic exploitation of Latin America and ongoing violations of human rights.Footnote 66 Indeed, during the following sessions, in Brussels in 1975 and in Rome in 1976, respectively, the Tribunal determined that “the ultimate responsibility” for human rights violations in Brazil and other Latin American countries “lies with the American government, with American imperialism of which the Washington government—the expression of the military-industrial complex—is the authorized representative”.Footnote 67 During these later sessions, the voices of the victims were overshadowed by experts’ analyses. Since the first session had already documented many examples of human rights violations, members of the Tribunal were now determined to define the background that made them possible. Bringing together the human rights jargon of the 1970s, analyses of Latin American economic dependence, and anti-Americanism, the second and the third sessions reiterated that to understand the “systemic violation of human rights” in Latin America, it was necessary to understand its economic rationale. “Those countries where human rights are systematically violated were part of the system of economic dominance” whose centre was the United States.Footnote 68 The judgement was even more explicit: not only were Latin American governments guilty of “gross, repeated and systematic violations of human rights”, but their actions were produced by an economic system in which “the United States and foreign corporations, among these the most powerful and numerous are based in the United States, … exerted and continue to exert with the complicity of the ruling Latin American classes, a constant intervention whose objective is to ensure the highest economic profits and strategic control”. The sentence thus reiterated that “American multinational corporations are behind both plundering all the resources of Latin America for their own profit and the consequent violations of human rights”.Footnote 69