Using people’s tribunals to mobilize victims and pressure for justice

The Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) set up the Indian People’s Tribunal (IPT) to promote justice and mobilize victims of human rights abuses.  

The HRLN was founded by a group of lawyers and social activists in India. They created the IPT to promote alternative visions for the judiciary and the public, investigate cases of gross human rights violation and environmental degradation, and highlight the plight of the oppressed. The IPT was positioned as an alternative to the People's Court and since 1993 has conducted 24 public hearings on human rights issues ranging from police violence to the right to food and housing. The tribunals are intended either to stop existing violations, to highlight harmful legislation, or to prevent further violations from taking place. The IPT provides an opportunity for India’s poor and vulnerable who otherwise do not have access to the regular courts and face the harshness of local authorities if they voice their grievances. The tribunals also bring legitimacy to the experiences of victims, and encourage communities to defend their rights.

The tribunals are conducted by retired judges from India’s High Courts and the Supreme Court, academics, economists, journalists and others.  First, a grassroots organization petitions the IPT secretariat to organise a Tribunal inquiry on behalf of affected community members.  The secretariat then reviews the nature of the violation and drafts the terms of reference. In emergencies, the IPT will conduct inquiries for an immediate response.  Next, the Tribunal organizes a site visit in which they meet with the affected persons and government officials.  If the abuse affects a large number of people, the Tribunal will conduct a public hearing.  Finally, the Tribunal will draft a detailed report of research, findings, and recommendations based on the site visit.  This report is released at public meetings and press conferences to exert pressure on Indian authorities with the aim to increase public awareness of community struggles and to push for long term public policy change.

Through this tactic, HRLN and the IPT have been able to affect government policies in many instances, bringing local struggles into the national spotlight and empowering communities around the country.  For instance, after an earthquake, the government, despite having received funding from the World Bank and other groups, failed to rebuild houses as promised.  IPT drafted a report about the failure to use the money that was later brought to the High Court, which ordered the government to fulfil its duties to rebuild houses.  In another case, IPT sent a women’s team to Kashmir to investigate the Indian army’s abuses of women and children.  Their report was used to campaign for the repeal of the “Armed Forced Special Powers Act.”  

However, these and other IPT victories have not been without costs. To begin with, each Tribunal takes a lot of time to organize.  Terms of reference must be created that detail the intended impact, the form the report will take, and what experts are needed. In addition, a certain degree of personal danger may be involved. In one instance, the leader of the local group which protested against the Maroli-Umargaon Port Project, a project that would have adversely affected the livelihoods and environment of the local community, was fatally assaulted by the police. Thus the work of the IPT can be very successful, but the organization must be very aware of the potential costs.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

This tactic shows the potential utility of working outside the official justice system to address issues. By creating a tribunal, the HRLN was able to make an impact in areas that would have been difficult to affect otherwise. The IPT benefitted from access to people with legal experience, such as retired judges and academics, so this tactic could be difficult to implement on a national scale without support from knowledegable parties. However, on a smaller scale, a local tribunal could be effective in solving community issues without necessitating the involvement of powerful individuals.