Tracing the longer history of civil society contestation against global governance institutions is notoriously difficult. For the most part, scholars have relied on newspaper articles to count the incidence and dominant claims of protests against international organizations. But what other sources are available? Here I draw attention to the archive of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunals (PPT), housed at the Lelio and Lisli Basso Foundation in Rome. The archive offers important and detailed historical records on how civil society organizations politicized global governance institutions more than a decade before the notorious Battle of Seattle and the establishment of the World Social Forum – events which are often cast as major turning points in the global politics of (de)legitimation.

Permanent Peoples’ Tribunals (PPTs) are courts of the people. Originating from the Russell Tribunals of the 1960s, PPTs are public hearings that give voice to those whose fundamental rights have been violated, and examine these grievances and claims where no state-based forums for redress may be available. They mimic the composition of formal courts, inviting victims, witnesses and defendants and have a jury comprising lawyers, intellectuals and other notable public figures. Despite having existed since 1979 and having pronounced 43 sentences on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to the crimes committed by agrochemical corporations, PPTs have largely escaped the radar of academic research and debate. Today, the mainstream media provides little or no coverage of their activities, while academia has seldom placed PPTs within the map of contentious politics [1].

Animated by an interested in learning more about the longer history of civil society contestation against international governmental organizations, I found myself sifting through and reading the voluminous documentation contained in the files related to the the PPT sessions named “Policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB)”. The tribunal on the IMF and the WB convened at the height of the “lost development decade”. This was a period of time running through and beyond the 1980s in which debt-stricken developing countries turned to the IMF and WB for financial assistance, which was offered in exchange for stringent adjustment policies (SAPs), very much akin to today’s austerity policies. The first PPT session on the IMF and the WB took place in West Berlin in 1988 to coincide with protests events against the institutions’ joint Annual Meeting. An official follow-up session was hosted in Madrid in 1994 as part of wider mobilizations coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Bretton Woods institutions. Amongst the documents there was also a record of a lesser-known session that took place in Tokyo in 1993 called “The International Peoples Tribunal to Judge the G-7”.

Photo: Protest Agenda and Related Events, Berlin 24-25 September 1988.
Photo: Protest Agenda and Related Events, Berlin 24-25 September 1988.

In agreement with Commission of American Jurists (CAJ), who originally submitted the request to initiate the PPT on the IMF and the WB’s lending policies [2], the most elaborate sentence pronounced by the PPT found the two institutions in breach of their respective founding agreements and a wide spectrum of international norms.  Above all, it deemed them responsible for the dramatic deterioration of living conditions in the structurally adjusted periphery. One of the legitimacy challenges that the tribunal mounted against the two organizations was a legal challenge. However, the sentence also called for the establishment of a new Bretton Woods conference to completely remodel the IMF and the WB. Such “remodelling” would entail prioritising the development needs of debtors, the democratisation of voting rights, as well as a stronger oversight of the social, ecological and gendered impact of policies and funded projects. For the PPT, the legitimacy of the two organizations could be restored through major reforms grounded in deeper commitments to fairness and democracy. Interestingly, these are political and ethical claims that still reverberate in much contemporary civil society activism against international organizations, but that, as the PPTs’ trial of the IMF and the WB suggest, have longer origins.

Opening up the files stored in the PPTs’ archive has allowed me to gaze inside correspondence amongst activists, lawyers and intellectuals; documents produced by the IMF and WB; dossiers on the impact of structural adjustment programmes; transcripts of the testimonies of victims and witnesses; sentences; as well as photocopies of numerous European newspapers that reported on the tribunal’s session. These are rich and important sources for anyone interested in tracing the formation and studying the substantive claims and practices of cross-border civil society counter-publics targeting institutions of global economic governance.

Catia Gregoratti

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[1] Exceptions are Icaza R. (2010) “Global Europe Guilty! Contesting EU neoliberal governance for Latin America and the Caribbean”, Third World Quarterly, 31 (1): 123-39; and Icaza R. (2015) “The Permanent People’s Tribunals and indigenous people’s struggle’s in Mexico: between coloniality and epistemic justice ”, Palgrave Communications, 1: 1-10; see also the reports published as part of the “Expert Seminar of People’s Tribunals and International Law”.

[2] Extract of an interview with Beinusz Smukler, on file with the author.