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(1872-1970) British philosopher, logician, social reformer and a man of letters, Russell divided his time between philosophy and politics during most of his life. An orphan at an early age, he was brought up by his grandmother, was educated at home by private tutors, and entered Cambridge University to study mathematics but later switched his interests to philosophy. He was without qualification one of the brightest minds of the 20th century, a man devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and peace.


Late in his life,  during the 1960's amid the Vietnam conflict, Bertrand Russell became instrumental in organizing a public board of inquiry which was called the International War Crimes Tribunal. Its aim was to document the occurrence of war crimes in America's war in Southeast Asia in the nation of Vietnam. The Tribunal convened in 1966 and concluded in 1967. A committee of conscience numbering 25 represented 18 nations. Most on the committee were winners of the Nobel Prize.


The Tribunal led the way for subsequent 'citizen' inquiries, one of which was the "Winter Soldier Investigation."  Although no members of the Nixon administration were ever brought up on charges of war crimes, the Tribunal clearly established more than adequate foundations for such claims.


The Russell Tribunal also laid the groundwork and formed the 'moral impetus' for the 1992 War Crimes Tribunal, regarding the bombing of Iraq by the United States, as well as for the recent, also public, World Tribunal on Iraq, which held several sessions this past year in various cities including New York, Rome, and concluding in Istanbul.


Bertrand Russell is our first "Champion for Peace" honoree. His was an illustrious, noble life.  We think it fitting that his own words best capture the essence of the man--his spirit, mind, and morality.  The following speech was delivered upon the First Meeting of the International War Crimes Tribunal in November 1966.



Allow me to express my appreciation to you for your willingness to participate in this Tribunal. It has been convened so that we may investigate and assess the character of the United States’ war in Vietnam.

The Tribunal has no clear historical precedent. The Nuremberg Tribunal, although concerned with designated war crimes, was possible because the victorious allied Powers compelled the vanquished to present their leaders for trial. Inevitably, the Nuremberg trials, supported as they were by state power, contained a strong element of realpolitik. Despite these inhibiting factors, which call in question certain of the Nuremberg procedures, the Nuremberg Tribunal expressed the sense of outrage, which was virtually universal, at the crimes committed by the Nazis in Europe. Somehow, it was widely felt, there had to be criteria against which such actions could be judged, and according to which Nazi crimes could be condemned. Many felt it was morally necessary to record the full horror. It was hoped that a legal method could be devised, capable of coming to terms with the magnitude of Nazi crimes. These ill-defined but deeply felt sentiments surrounded the Nuremberg Tribunal.

Our own task is more difficult, but the same responsibility obtains. We do not represent any state power, nor can we compel the policy-makers responsible for crimes against the people of Vietnam to stand accused before us. We lack force majeure. The procedures of a trial are impossible to implement.

I believe that these apparent limitations are, in fact, virtues. We are free to conduct a solemn and historic investigation, uncompelled by reasons of state or other such obligations. Why is this war being fought in Vietnam? In whose interest is it being waged? We have, I am certain, an obligation to study these questions and to pronounce on them, after thorough investigation, for in doing so we can assist mankind in understanding why a small agrarian people have endured for more than twelve years the assault of the largest industrial power on earth, possessing the most developed and cruel military capacity.

I have prepared a paper, which I hope you will wish to read during your deliberations. It sets out a considerable number of reports from Western newspapers and such sources, giving an indication of the record of the United States in Vietnam. These reports should make it clear that we enter our inquiry with considerable prima facie evidence of crimes reported not by the victims but by media favourable to the policies responsible. I believe that we are justified in concluding that it is necessary to convene a solemn Tribunal, composed of men eminent not through their power, but through their intellectual and moral contribution to what we optimistically call ‘human civilization’.

I feel certain that this Tribunal will perform an historic role if its investigation is exhaustive. We must record the truth in Vietnam. We must pass judgement on what we find to be the truth. We must warn of the consequences of this truth. We must, moreover, reject the view that only indifferent men are impartial men. We must repudiate the degenerate conception of individual intelligence, which confuses open minds with empty ones.

I hope that this Tribunal will select men who respect the truth and whose life’s work bears witness to that respect. Such men will have feelings about the prima facie evidence of which I speak. No man unacquainted with this evidence through indifference has any claim to judge it.

I enjoin this Tribunal to select commissions for the purpose of dividing the areas of investigation and taking responsibility for their conduct, under the Tribunal’s jurisdiction. I hope that teams of qualified investigators will be chosen to study in Vietnam the evidence of which we have witnessed only a small part. I should like to see the United States Government requested to present evidence in defence of its actions. The resistance of the National Liberation Front and of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam must also be assessed and placed in its true relation to the civilization we choose to uphold. We have about five months of work before us, before the full hearings, which have been planned for Paris.

As I reflect on this work, I cannot help thinking of the events of my life, because of the crimes I have seen and the hopes I have nurtured. I have lived through the Dreyfus Case and been party to the investigation of the crimes committed by King Leopold in the Congo. I can recall many wars. Much injustice has been recorded quietly during these decades. In my own experience I cannot discover a situation quite comparable. I cannot recall a people so tormented, yet so devoid of the failings of their tormentors. I do not know any other conflict in which the disparity in physical power was so vast. I have no memory of any people so enduring, or of any nation with a spirit of resistance so unquenchable.

I will not conceal from you the profundity of my admiration and passion for the people of Vietnam. I cannot relinquish the duty to judge what has been done to them because I have such feelings. Our mandate is to uncover and tell all. My conviction is that no greater tribute can be provided than an offer of the truth, born of intense and unyielding inquiry.

May this Tribunal prevent the crime of silence.



Speech to the First Meeting of Members of the War Crimes Tribunal, London, November 13, 1966

Reprinted as a document in the public domain.

Last Updated  December 06, 2005

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