Russell Court – the Chile case

Image: Alina


The two Russell courts left a precious legacy to the anti-imperialist and anti-fascist movement

The first court

In 1966, at the age of 94, the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who in the first decade of the XNUMXth century had revolutionized the logical foundations of mathematics and the philosophy of language, took the lead in calling for an International Court of Crimes of War to judge the unspeakable atrocities that accompanied the United States' military intervention in Vietnam.

In early 1967, he released War Crimes in Vietnam [War crimes in Vietnam], a basic book of anti-imperialist thought, bringing together nine incisive and well-documented writings, plus the text of three speeches, including the one he delivered on the radio of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front to the soldiers of the invading American troops. The collection also presents two annexes: the defense and illustration of the objectives of the International War Crimes Tribunal and a report by Ralph Schoenman, who traveled through North Vietnam under an incessant rain of bombs and chemical weapons launched by the Pentagon in the name of “democracy".

For Bertrand Russell, the imperialist character of the war was evident. But he begins the book by explaining why this evidence remained clouded: “Western racism, especially that of the United States, has created an atmosphere in which it is extremely difficult to make clear American responsibility for problems that are considered 'internal' to underdeveloped countries.” . The ongoing war, he continues, is presented as “the inevitable and tragic product of poverty, backwardness and savagery, supposedly inherent in Southeast Asia”.1

Meeting in May 1967 in Stockholm, the Court was made up of 25 members, all recognized defenders of social rights and humanitarian causes. Among them were winners of the Nobel Prize and other honorable distinctions. The presidency was attributed to Jean-Paul Sartre, who in his opening speech considered that the trial of Nazi crimes at the Nuremberg Tribunal showed the need for an institution designed to investigate war crimes, but that neither governments nor peoples were capable of creating it.

Therefore, he adds, not without a certain irony: “We are perfectly aware that we did not receive a mandate from anyone, but if we took the initiative to meet it is because we knew that no one could give us a mandate. The Russell Court […] considers that its legitimacy arises both from its perfect impotence and from its universality.”2

Around thirty witnesses testified, reporting the dire effects of the criminal bombings on the Vietnamese population. A boy showed in court his torso and belly, which had been horribly deformed by napalm. Based on the concepts of “crime against peace” and “war crime” introduced into international criminal law by the Nuremberg process and taking into account the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the Court ruled on December 4, 1967 , at the end of its second session, held in Roskilde (Denmark), declare the American government guilty of the crime of genocide of the Vietnamese people.

Bertrand Russell died on 2 February 1970, but the moral and political impact of the Tribunal of which he had been the great inspirer was considerable. His name was deservedly associated, postmortem, to the new International Tribunal, known as Russell II, on repression in Brazil, Chile and Latin America, whose main organizer was Lelio Basso, senator, jurist and prominent member of the Italian socialist left, who had worked in Stockholm.

Towards Russell II – the Chilean tragedy

The new initiative resumed basic characteristics of the Russell I Court experience: autonomous extra-party organization; mobilization of intellectuals, notably jurists, political and union leaders, writers, artists; investigation procedures, collection of evidence, testimony of witnesses. There were also obvious differences: this time, those denounced and accused were not the genocides of the American war machine, but the military dictatorships of South America.

When Senator Lelio Basso initiated the articulation of the Russell II Court, it was above all the terrorism of the Brazilian State that aroused international indignation, especially in progressive European circles. Visiting Chile in 1971, during the revolutionary transformations promoted by the Popular Unity government presided over by Salvador Allende, he spoke to a group of Brazilian exiles about the feasibility of setting up a court to judge the crimes committed by the military regime, which he had institutionalized in the AI5 its openly terrorist character.

The darkly degraded international image of Brazil in those times can be gauged by a symptomatic example: Georges Pompidou, General De Gaulle's successor in the presidency of France, in a radio address, indirectly but unequivocally referred to Brazil as “le pays de la torture” [the country of torture]. The European political environment was therefore favorable to Lelio Basso's initiative. Where there were significant groups of Brazilian exiles, he encouraged the formation of committees that gathered documents proving the systematic violation of human rights in Brazil. He also took care of obtaining the essential funds for the organization of Russell II, the dissemination of its objectives and the mobilization of the European anti-imperialist left.

The formal convening of the court was scheduled for November 1973. Two months earlier, however, the military coup launched by the fascist leadership of the Armed Forces established a regime of terror in Chile under the command of General Pinochet. The heroic death of President Salvador Allende, resisting until the end, reverberated throughout the world. He haughtily refused the ultimatum of the leaders of the fascist sedition, who set the start of the attack on the La Moneda Palace at 11 am. His last message, broadcast on the radio Magallanes, broadcaster of the Communist Party of Chile, contained a farewell along with a final declaration of confidence in the people and the course of history: “Compatriots, this will certainly be the last chance to address you. […] I will not resign! At this historic moment, I will pay for my loyalty to the people with my life. And I say that I am certain that the seed we have given to the worthy conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans cannot be definitively harvested. They have strength, they can overwhelm us, but social processes are not stopped either by crime or by force. History is ours and it is the people who make it.”3

Tank fire and the low flight of two British-made Hawker Hunter fighters announced the final assault, which began at 11:50 am. Rockets launched by fighter jets exploded inside the Palace, causing a fire. An Army platoon occupied the courtyard and began the invasion of the building. According to the most accepted version, determined not to fall alive into the hands of the coup plotters, Salvador Allende reserved a bullet for himself from the rifle he was wielding.

The radio Magallanes also landed on his feet. Before being taken off the air, it broadcast Allende's testament-speech and then the song by the group Quilapayún, which would be perpetuated as the anthem of the fight against military fascism, “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido”. The coup regime resorted, from the first hours, to annihilation operations to break popular resistance. The Cordones Industriales, local power organizations of the labor movement, were annihilated one after another; bodies of Popular Unity militants were thrown into the Mapocho River, which runs through Santiago; the National Stadium became a concentration camp for more than twenty thousand prisoners, as a rule tortured, many of them summarily executed.

Faced with the international commotion caused by such a terrible tragedy, Lelio Basso and the other organizers of the new court responded immediately and convincingly to the request of Hortensia Allende, the president's widow, to include Chile, alongside Brazil, on the Russell II agenda. On November 6, 1973, the start of work by the Russell II Tribunal on repression in Brazil, Chile and Latin America was formally announced in Brussels.

The date and location of the launch had been chosen to respond to a mega-exhibition set up with the aim of attracting investors from the “business environments” of large European capital, celebrating the fallacious “Brazilian miracle”. In the capital of Belgium, the bureaucratic bodies of the European Economic Community (EEC), predecessor of the European Union, were installed, as well as those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the war machine of the imperialist “West”.

From Rome to Rome

The first trial session of the Russell II Court, presided over by Lelio Basso, took place in Rome, from March 30 to April 6, 1974. Throughout thirteen hearings, the serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms that occurred in dictatorships military personnel from Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Bolivia were extensively documented and proven by witnesses of unassailable integrity.

The Court drew up a list of more than a thousand people tortured in Brazil, also identifying many torturers and describing the atrocious methods they used to quickly extort information that would make it possible to locate and annihilate groups of resisters or those perceived as such. Also in Uruguay, where revolutionary struggle movements developed, torture was systematically used with the same objective.

In Chile, where the coup plotters immediately displayed their homicidal fury, torture served to physically destroy the militants of the popular cause, before becoming, as elsewhere, a sordid method of collecting information. In Bolivia, the short-lived patriotic and progressive government of General Juan José Torres (1970-1971) was overthrown by a coup by the military extreme right, shamelessly supported by the United States Embassy, ​​which established the crypto-fascist dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer.

In the name of popular resistance in their respective countries, the former governor Miguel Arraes, then exiled in Algiers, senator Zelmar Michelini, from the Uruguayan Broad Front, exiled in Buenos Aires, and Carlos Vassallo, the government's last ambassador to Italy, took the floor. legal in Chile. At that time, the military dictatorship in Brazil completed a decade, but in Uruguay it dated back to June 27, 1973 and in Chile to September 11 of the same year.

It was up to Miguel Arraes to take the floor at the beginning of the work. He highlighted the worsening of social inequalities and the sharp drop in the purchasing power of salaries in the city and countryside since 1964, showed that an “agrarian reform” was taking place in reverse, with broad distribution of land to landowners, and denounced the alienation to the imperialist capitalism of key sectors of the economy.

Although with less international impact, because the establishment of the open dictatorship involved a slow and gradual suppression of the rights and guarantees of the liberal-democratic State, police-military terror in Uruguay reached enormous proportions, as Senator Michelini showed in his intervention. At least 5 citizens had been tortured and 40 imprisoned out of a total population of 2,5 million inhabitants. In a country like Italy, with 50 million inhabitants, the number of people tortured and imprisoned would be proportionally twenty times greater.

At the end of the activities of the first session, the Court concluded that “the authorities that, in fact, exercise power in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Bolivia” were declared “guilty of serious, repeated and systematic violations of human rights” . Taken together, these violations constitute “a crime against humanity committed in each of the four countries in question by the very authorities that exercise power.”4

Opening the second session of Russell II in Brussels, which took place from January 11 to 18, 1975, Lelio Basso highlighted the repercussion of these activities not only in international organizations, such as the UN Human Rights Committee, but also “in all parts of the world".

One of the interventions that aroused great interest in the January 1975 hearings was that of former minister Pedro Vuskovic, one of the main designers of the Allende government's economic policy. He began with a concise portrait of the situation in his country, sixteen months after the military-fascist putsch. The state of siege, the curfew, the omnipotence of the military courts and above all the arrests and murders of militants and resistant workers continued.

The predictable deterioration in the living and working conditions of the popular masses was confirmed: brutal reduction in purchasing power, unprecedented rates of unemployment, large-scale closure of small and medium-sized businesses, reappearance of large numbers of homeless people, who had left of misery during the Popular Unity government. Vuskovic also insisted on the role of trusts and the US government in destabilizing Chilean democracy.

The agenda of the third and final session of Russell II, which took place in Rome, from January 10 to 17, 1976, included military interventions by the United States, the modalities of imperialist cultural domination, the assembly of legal systems at the service of the regimes military and the structure of fascist power. Violations of human and citizen rights in Guatemala, Haiti, Paraguay and the Dominican Republic were also examined, as well as those of indigenous people in Brazil, victims of what was considered a crime of genocide committed by the military government.

The serious deterioration of Argentine political institutions, weakened by the violent confrontation between opposing wings of Peronism, did not escape the Court's attention. Head of the far-right wing and President María Estela Perón's most powerful minister, José López Rega gave carte blanche to the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance, known as Triple A, which he had organized to carry out extermination operations against left-wing militants, including those who they were exiled. The Argentine government was condemned by Russell II for violating “all the principles of the right to asylum and cooperating on its territory in the persecution of Latin American refugees by the police of their respective countries”.

However, just over two months after this conviction, on March 24, 1976, a military coup led by General Videla established a terrorist regime whose crimes against humanity are among the most sordid and heinous committed by Latin American fascist militarism.

Half a century later

The two Russell courts left a precious legacy to the anti-imperialist and anti-fascist movement. Unfortunately, in the reactionary and neocolonialist environment that has thrived in today's Europe, so different from that which was supportive of the Vietnamese people's national liberation struggle and welcomed refugees from far-right military terrorism, international courts such as the one in The Hague serve above all to demonize, condemn and punish governments that oppose neoliberalism and the hegemonism of the United States and its smaller partners in the Old World.

There are no more military dictatorships in Latin America. But the neofascist dynamics that in the 1960s and 1970s led to the establishment of exceptional regimes in the Southern Cone, far from being extinguished, are reactivated in critical situations, as shown by the catastrophic Bolsonarist outbreak and the coup that overthrew Evo Morales in 2019. The tribute by the living forces of Chilean society to the memory of those who, fifty years ago, fell to their feet in the face of Pinochet's coup, starting with President Salvador Allende, must also be understood as a lesson for the future.

*João Quartim de Moraes He is a retired full professor at the Department of Philosophy at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of The military left in Brazil (popular expression) (

Originally published on Boitempo's blog.


[1] Bertrand Russell, War Crimes In Vietnam (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1967), p. 9.

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Inaugural Discours”, in Vladimir Dedijer, Arlette Elkaïm, Catherine Russell (eds.), Russell Court, the judgment of Stockholm v. 1 (Paris, Gallimard, 1967), p. 28

[3] Salvador Allende, “Last speech”, in Vladimir Safatle (org.), The unarmed revolution: speeches by Salvador Allende (trans. Emerson Silva, São Paulo, Ubu, 2014), p. 158-9

[4] Giuseppe Tosi and Lúcia de Fátima Guerra Ferreira (orgs.), Brazil, violation of human rights – Russell II Court (trans. Fernando de Souza Barbosa Júnior, João Pessoa, Editora da UFPB, 2014), p. 372

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