On display in Stockholm

By: Bridget Anderson, Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow

Tribunal 12, modelled on the 1966 Russell Tribunal, was held in Stockholm on 12th May 2012. It accused Europe of continual violation of human rights and the systematic mistreatment of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers.

The event brought together politics, academia and culture through the staging of a series of witness statements, expert testimony and prosecutorial accusations in Kulturhuset, a theatre in central Stockholm, ending in the jury’s response. Witness statements, read out by actors told in simple terms of the lives of individuals traumatised by brutal state interventions, while the prosecutors used the expert evidence of academics to structure and analyse these particular cases.

It was dramatically and beautifully staged, the culmination of a five year cultural project, called Shahrazad – Stories for life. It was a very moving event, and a privilege to be a part of, and also very demanding. I was called as an ‘expert’ on undocumented migration in Europe. Being an expert was akin to the kind of nightmares you might have about a PhD viva, only it happened in real life.

Summing up undocumented migration issues in 15 minutes is challenge enough, particularly trying to get the right balance, avoiding victimisation but presenting injustice. But having to do it in front of a jury comprised of people like Henning Mankell, the author of Wallander and an acclaimed playwright, Dr Nawal El Saadawi, the acclaimed writer and activist, and Professor Saskia Sassen, and then answer whatever questions they had, was seriously scary. And then learning that it was being beamed to a large screen in the central square in Stockholm so shoppers could witness as they passed, and several cinemas in Sweden, and live on the internet… That really is the PhD viva from hell.

All aspiring candidates should take heart though, as in the end it wasn’t that bad. This was partly because, listening to the witness statements and imagining them being broadcast to Sweden’s shoppers was very powerful. Those migrants, in speaking out, were seriously risking much more than merely looking an idiot, which is all that I stood to lose. Their evidence and the prosecution statements bore witness also to the importance of not being silent.

And the stage setting was surprisingly intimate – the artistic directors really knew what they were doing. And backstage the atmosphere was great, as it had to be for a marathon 14-hour day. We laughed and talked about Syria, Iran, Burma, feminism, football (I didn’t do much of that), the importance of tea drinking, high heels, the novel and communism, as well as immigration and asylum of course.

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