Dr Aldo Zammit Borda

This article considers that, in the current state of international justice, informal People’s Tribunals (PTs) constitute indispensable, quasi-judicial institutions that bridge gaps in access to justice, challenge official narratives (or silences) about atrocities and, potentially, open up new avenues towards justice and recognition.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of (PTs), promising to address atrocities that have fallen through the net of a statist international legal order. However, their status has remained controversial in both the literature and practice. They have been variously characterised as ‘experiment[s] in transitional justice’, ‘metaphor[s] of justice’, ‘kangaroo courts’, and ‘a joke’, because they lack a mandate from State authorities or State-backed international organisations.

This article addresses the question of legitimacy of such informal tribunals, noting that they remain relatively unknown in mainstream international justice literature. The article takes the view that, while the expectation is that the primary authority to take effective action to combat impunity, ensure justice and preserve human rights rests with the affected State or with the international community of States, there are, unfortunately, countless examples of States preferring to deny or to simply look the other way.

However, even in these cases, the dominant view has been that PTs simply lack legitimate authority. Positing that, in the language game of legitimacy, PTs are put on a perpetual argumentative backfoot, this article examines aspects of their input, process and output legitimacy. It is argued that the right of victims-survivors to be heard reigns supreme and it is in upholding that right that the authority of PTs is legitimised.

In such contexts, access to justice initiatives are more likely to come from citizens and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) rather than from governments. And it is here that PTs gain in significance. As they are not under the direct control of States, they have the ability to create new avenues for access to justice, and to challenge the narrative about the violations in ways that, perhaps, the States involved may not have anticipated.

After examining in detail aspects of the input, process and output legitimacy of such informal tribunals, the article concludes that eventually, it is really either-or. Either refrain from action due to traditional legitimacy challenges to non-State initiatives or put access to justice considerations first, involve victim-survivor groups’ voices directly in the (re)narrativisation of alleged crimes, come to a verdict in an open and transparent manner, and let legitimacy follow.

The full article is available in open access here: https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2230.12747

Citation: Aldo Zammit Borda and Stefan Mandelbaum, ‘‘If I Would Stay Alive, I Would Be Their Voice’: On the Legitimacy of International People’s Tribunals’, (2022) 85 Modern Law Review (pages tbc)

Dr Aldo Zammit Borda is Reader in Law at City, University of London. This article has been made available in Open Access with the kind support of the Publications Team at City, University of London.