New report on ‘Organising a People’s Tribunal’

By Don Flynn.

A new study of the tactic of mounting a People’s Tribunal (PT) to indict a government for its breach of human rights standards has been published by a group of activists and academic researchers involved in organising the 2018 London Hearing of the Permanent People’s Tribunal on Violations with Impunity of the Rights of Migrant and Refugee People.

The report, ‘Organising a People’s Tribunal’, considers the role that a PT might have in addressing the issue of the regularisation of status for a diverse group of people, numbering hundreds of thousands, who have fallen into a precarious standing with immigration control as it has unfolded as a deliberately constructed hostile environment for migrants.

Protest against the Nationality and Borders Bill, Whitehall, London, November 2021 (image: Status Now Network)

It identifies the strategic difficulties that exist for campaigners for migrant rights when their work is undertaken by a large number of separate organisations and projects, pursuing objectives that are specific to particular migrant groups or dealing with particular issues. This leads to what is described as an inevitable tendency towards the silo-isation of activity, which sometimes leads to outright competition between groups vying for the attention of audiences and funders.

A result of working in silos is that messages about the broad character of the migration control system and its impact on migrant lives tends to become fragmented and the possibility of achieving significant change is arguably reduced.

PT objectives

The organisation of a PT is intended to address this problem by setting objectives that are seen as having five basic objects:

1. Visibility – it brings much needed visibility and profile to a large-scale human rights violation, and puts this topic on the political agenda.

2. Voice and power – it creates a platform that enables diverse groups, particularly those who are traditionally excluded from public debate, to engage with and into dialogue with one another. It encourages them to give a public account of their knowledge and experience and have them recognised as truth.

3. Building solidarity – it provides an opportunity to identify points of difference and to find a path across them. A powerful account of the mechanisms and the impact of rights violations can emerge, which can point the way to mutual collaboration in finding common solutions and to exert more pressure on government and other actors for change.

4. Power ‘from below’ – rather than a legally enforceable verdict, a PT can create the momentum and solidarity to act on its findings and enact the judgement ‘from below’.

5. Speaking across groups – powerful moments of previous tribunals occurred when non-migrant voices – e.g. from trade unions, anti-austerity campaigners, disabled people’s movements – were raised alongside migrant testimony. This required mobilising networks and trust so different groups were willing to share their experiences. These moments created empathy and solidarity across groups and created stronger possible interventions into mainstream political debate by showing that the injustices shown up by the tribunal are not ‘just about migrants’ but intersect with other lives. Migration matters for all of us.

PTs have been undertaken across a range of issues in recent times and this new report urges anyone planning to do the same to approach the work with a degree of flexibility that is tailored to the evidence, the communities providing it and also the audiences whose views the activity is seeking to influence. Though not to be read as a checklist for things which have to be done for a successful tribunal, it sets out a comprehensive overview of the considerations that will structure the organisation of the project. These include:

·       securing financial resources and managing the budget;

·       providing administrative support;

·       managing the evidence collection process;

·       appointing, liaising with and supporting the jury;

·       carrying out internal and external communications work in line with the agreed communications strategy;

·       organising engagement and outreach activities in line with the agreed strategy.

It recommends planning the event as a medium-term project with a time scale of around 10-12 months. With this level of commitment required the obvious question is what might come out of the exercise that justifies its effort?

Migrant rights – an ‘outlier project’?

What is aimed for is an end to conceiving of solidarity with migrant and refugee people as an outlier project that only engages with a political subculture making internationalism and human rights the hallmark of its concern. We are now entering a third decade of what can rightly be called hostile environment policies and, though their most egregious scandals continue to breakthrough and outrage public opinion, government authority has shown a considerable capacity to overcome its stumbles and continue along the same road.

The main reason for the success of the hostile environment is its ability to present the predicament of migrant and refugee people as something that is apart from the experiences of the ‘real’ working class, which is presented as non-mobile, oriented to stable community life as opposed to transience, and holding values which are not shared by the newcomers. The view, which prevails across the mainstream of public opinion, continues to be that citizens and migrants stand at opposite poles to one another and the role of government in a democratic parliamentary system is to stand with the former against the latter.

A well-organised PT is intended to create opportunities to reach out to migrant and refugee experiences in communities and workplaces and articulate the record of exploitation, discrimination and marginalisation that has direct parallels with those of the majority of citizens. In doing this it should reveal commonalities of experience and begin to mark out the responses needed to confront and fight back against the rising tide of inequality and social injustice.

Status Now Network initiative

The study reports on the initiative currently underway involving supporters of the Status Now Network (SNN), which has floated the idea of a People’s Tribunal on the theme of ‘irregularisation by design’. This is intended to indict the UK government for policies that have been undermining regular and secure immigration statuses and rights over a period of decades, producing the current situation in which insecurity and risk remain prevalent for migrant and refugees many years after they have entered the country. The SNN group working to develop this project will be organising a roundtable on the lessons set out in the study, with a view to incorporating the most relevant of these into its own plans. If you are interested in participating in this roundtable please email info@statusnow4all.org.

You can download the report ‘Organising a People’s Tribunal’ as a .PDF or Word document.

Don Flynn is a commentator who has worked in migrant rights since providing legal advice at a community law centre in the 1970s. He helped found and was director of the Migrants’ Rights Network and has been a trustee and steering group member of several migrant organisations since.

This post was first published by the London Hearing of the PPT on 21st December 2021.

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