Peoples’ tribunals and international law

Rome conference attendees
Photo of participants at the Expert Seminar on Peoples' Tribunals and International Law on 27-28 September 2013 in Rome.

Expert Seminar of People’s Tribunals and International Law

The Australian Human Rights Centre, in collaboration with the Fondazione Lelio e Lisli Basso ISSOCO, Rome, Italy held an Expert Seminar of People’s Tribunals and International Law on 27-28 September 2013 in Rome. The seminar brought together academics and activists to examine a number of general themes about the nature and impact of peoples’ tribunals over the last half century, and to critically examine the operation of a number of specific tribunals. 

Peoples’ tribunals and international law: citizens’ and peoples’ challenges to state dominance in the making and interpretation of international law

Professor Andrew Byrnes and Dr Gabrielle Simm 

Since the 1960s there have been at least eighty ‘peoples’ tribunals’, ‘citizens’ tribunals’ or similar commissions of inquiry established outside formal State and international structures.  These have addressed alleged violations of international law, human rights and moral and ethical standards in areas ranging from the conduct of the Vietnam war, through violence against women, to environmental degradation, the impact of debt, and the rights of workers.

During the same period, civil society organisations have been increasingly active within formal international structures in participating in the development of new international standards.  Civil society actors have also increasingly been granted access to procedures in which judicial or quasi-judicial bodies (such as the WTO dispute resolution bodies) declare and apply international law standards, providing them with the opportunity to influence the development of those norms.  There has been a significant increase in informal and unsolicited expert scrutiny of and pronouncements on governments’ compliance with international law in areas which include the initiation of war, the conduct of conventional warfare and of the ‘war on terror, and international whaling.

This project aims to enhance our understanding of civil society participation in international law-making and implementation, and how scrutiny of the legality of state conduct affects the exercise of political power.   It will explore and analyse the challenges by civil society to the historical state monopoly on international law-making and interpretation through a focus on the activities and contribution of international civil society or public opinion tribunals.  The project will assess the extent to which peoples’ tribunals have resulted in a greater democratisation of international law-making and provided additional accountability mechanisms for the exercise of power by states and international organisations

This research project is funded by an ARC Discovery Grant awarded to Professor Andrew Byrnes in 2011 (DP110101594: ‘Whose law is it, anyway? Citizens' and peoples' challenges to state dominance in the making and application of international law’).


Andrew Byrnes and Gabrielle Simm, ‘Peoples' Tribunals, International Law and the Use of Force’ (2013) 36 UNSW Law Journal 711

Gabrielle Simm and Andrew Byrnes, ‘International Peoples’ Tribunals in Asia: Political Theatre, Juridical Farce or Meaningful Intervention? (2013) Asian Journal of International Law,


Professor Andrew Byrnes taught a postgraduate seminar course based on this research in session 2 in 2011 and 2012 in the Faculty of Law at UNSW.  Professor Byrnes also taught a seminar on People's Tribunals in Zurich in October 2012.

Other activities

In November-December 2011 Andrew Byrnes spent two weeks in Rome at the Lelio Basso International Foundation for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples, the seat of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, conducting archival research into the work of the PPT. Together with Amy Rogers, a student intern at the Australian Human Rights Centre at UNSW, he observed the proceedings of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal hearings on Agrochemical Transnational Corporations, held in Bangalore, India from 3-6 December 2011.



Andrew Byrnes,  Claiming international law for the people: the persistence and role of civil society tribunals in the modern world  University of Zurich, 8 October 2012. Photo: Andrew Byrnes with Professor Christine Kaufmann and members of the seminar class on Peoples’ Tribunals and International Law, Villa Hatt, Zurich, 5-6 October 2012 (photo by Alexander Geml)


Gabrielle Simm and Andrew Byrnes, ‘People’s Tribunals: political theatre, juridical farce, or meaningful intervention?’, paper presented at the inaugural  Joint conference of the Australian and New Zealand Society of International Law and the Asian Society of International Law, held at UNSW, 25-26 October 2012. Photo: Gabrielle Simm with other members of the panel on International Human Rights Law at the Joint ANZSIL-AsianSIL Conference, UNSW, 25 October 2012 (Photo Diane Macdonald).

Gabrielle Simm, 'International Peoples' Tribunals as Archives?', Australian and NZ Society of International Law annual conference, Canberra, 4-7 July 2013.

Gabrielle Simm, ‘Feminist Judgments?  International Criminal Law and Peoples’ Tribunals,’ Inaugural Australian International Criminal Law Workshop, Melbourne Law School, 13 September 2013.