Jamie H. Trnka**

Beneath the stark lighting of the black box theatre in Stockholm’s Kulturhuset, actor Per Burell walks from his seat on stage left to the center podium to read the testimony of Kenan, a 45-year-old father of five from Turkey living alone in England for the past six years. Kenan’s testimony is projected onto a screen behind Burell as he reads. Imprisoned and tortured for political activity in the wake of the 1980 military coup, Kenan was harassed by Turkish police even after his release from jail. He escaped Turkey via Spain, and has been denied asylum in England twice. Excluded from the benefits of the country’s National Health Service, Kenan now lives with colon cancer and impotence. Living without legal protections has robbed him of all hope, and he has twice attempted suicide. At the time of Kenan’s appeal, the judge told him: “Our court is not prepared to trust your evidence.”[1]

Tribunal 12 was different. Convened on May 12, 2012 by Shahrazad—Stories for Life, with the support of national, regional and international cultural organizations in Stockholm, Sweden, it put a spotlight on the inhumane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers at the hands of European policies and practices that actively deter migration. The culmination of a five-year collaboration of cultural organizations in six European countries, Tribunal 12’s decision not only to trust and accept, but also to re-present migrant testimony raises important ethical and political questions long associated with both activist arts and various configurations of the theatre of the real.[2] In the face of successive waves of refugees to Europe, questions of credibility, authenticity, facticity and aesthetic purchase—common to documentary literature and film since its early twentieth-century inception—confront questions of political efficacy anew as artists and activists struggle to produce something more than what Wolfgang Ullrich has called “an aesthetic of clear conscience.”[3]

Increasingly, both national migrant advocacy organizations and collaborative, cross-border initiatives like Shahrazad are turning to creative media to make other Europes visible—especially those that continue to be violently excluded from mainstream political and cultural representation. As an example, Tribunal 12’s success turned on its strategic use of documentary techniques to advocate for immigration reform in light of ongoing human rights abuses that transgress borders.[4] In this manner, it raised questions about the relationship of national and regional identities at a moment when the EU relies increasingly on corporations such as Frontex to extend its control beyond identifiable borders.[5] Across Europe, a new and multifaceted documentarism seems to be taking hold. I adopt a definition of documentary that is focused less on genre and more on “a set of methods and propositions . . . governing its non-fiction features,” a definition that, as Attilio Favorini points out, allows the critic to “adduce . . . how the epistemological and political projects of representation converge.”[6]

Graphic Design: Studio Parasto Backman
Graphic Design: Courtesy of Studio Parasto Backman

In the case of Tribunal 12, supporting testimony was drawn from documents amassed in the course of the Shahrazad project, an ambitious, EU-sponsored venture that aimed to “set in motion a transnational dynamic of sharing and exchanging new stories,” and to engage “groups and individuals unfamiliar with the traditional literary and cultural industries.”[7] Guided by core values of human rights, freedom of speech, diversity and solidarity, six organizations in six European cities worked from 2007-2012 to organize over 600 events and activities with an estimated 60,000 participants.[8] Organizers anticipated that their broad range of cultural foci and competencies would foster mutual dependence and deepen transnational networks.[9] Programs ranged from translation workshops, multilingual writers’ workshops and publication initiatives, to the creation of a “European Constitution in Verse,” the composition, performance and publication of “Letters to Europe,” the on-line initiative “1001 Digital Stories,” school initiatives and a strong presence at international, multiplying events, such as book fairs.[10] Events frequently—and strategically—involved authors supported by the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN); as a consequence, Shahrazad witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of ICORN participants, more than doubling its participant numbers in five years.[11]

The overarching project’s name invites discussion of The Arabian Nights, also called The 1001 Nights. In its frame tale, Shahrazad artfully postpones her execution—and the executions of countless other women—by entertaining her husband, the Sultan Shahrayar, with stories night after night. “Stories for Life” denotes a clear commitment to the act of telling and sharing stories as life-saving from the project’s outset. Also, the choice of name anticipates the circulation, re-telling and recombination of tales over times and places that diverge substantially from their original contexts. The movement and translation of stories is thus connected to the movement of human beings. Shahrazad’s stories also save the Sultan, who finds redemption and love in deep listening. This is important because it delineates a potentially intersubjective relationship between contemporary listeners and tellers in which the figure of the European is similarly dependent on the stories of refugees. What may first appear to be an Orientalist sobriquet yields to a more complex geocultural (re)configuration that requires reciprocity to achieve humanity and a survival that is meaningful to all concerned.

I chose Tribunal 12, Shahrazad’s final event, as a cornerstone for this brief exploration of migrant advocacy and documentarism for three reasons. First, with jurors and witnesses from four continents committed to describing the heightened precarity of migrants and refugees, Tribunal 12’s scope was explicitly transnational. Many other compelling texts and performances that take up issues of migration are localizable to a dominant cultural framework of production and reception.[12] Thus, even as Caroline Wake identifies “a growing global genre of verbatim plays produced in collaboration with refugees, asylum seekers, and irregular immigrants,”[13] the largely national framing of the constituent performance texts belies the global nature of the genre. Tribunal 12’s transnational production and reception represents a distinct counterpoint. Of the hundreds of collaborative events organized by Shahrazad, this (and other) transnational performances were intended to “transcend what [are] generally regarded as literary events.”[14]

Second, I am interested in Tribunal 12’s self-conscious positioning vis-à-vis the 1966-1967 International War Crimes Tribunal, also referred to as the Vietnam Tribunal or the Russell Tribunal after its Honorary President, philosopher Bertrand Russell. Tribunal 12’s choice of historical and symbolic touchstone locates questions of contemporary political importance in a longer genealogy of performances that have played and continue to play a role in developing legal concepts and vocabularies of rights claims internationally. Like the Russell Tribunal, Tribunal 12 enjoyed no juridical authority, making moral claims based on a combination of implicit and explicit historical analogy and select, normative frameworks of law and diplomacy. Russell’s Stockholm hearings accused the USA of war crimes and genocide; Tribunal 12 accused Europe of systematic human rights violations in connection with immigration policies since the 1990s.[15]

Graphic Design: Studio Parasto Backman
Graphic Design: Courtesy of Studio Parasto Backman

While no mention was made during Tribunal 12 of the Vietnam-era inquiry into war crimes in Southeast Asia, the organizers consistently invoked Russell’s Tribunal in pre-event advertising, press materials, and subsequent correspondence. Indeed, a remarkable similarity in the opening statements of the two events indicates a set of shared moral claims to educate and inform the public about abuses of state power. Russell’s emphatic insistence on citizens’ obligation to intervene “when atrocity becomes technologized and institutionalized [as] an instrument of national policy,” resonated strongly with Tribunal 12’s account of EU policies and practices, even as it addressed contemporary debates on asylum on its own terms.[16] Russell’s post-WWII invocation of war crimes and specific standards for international justice gave way in the present to the ecumenical language of human rights. Russell operated in a political landscape that predated such institutions as the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal; Tribunal 12 made clear that our changed institutional landscape is ill-equipped to ensure the rights of people whose citizenship status—and, by extension, ability to assert rights claims—may be in question.

Tribunal members referenced Giorgio Agamben’s notion of a “state of exception” to indicate a place outside of the law where human rights norms do not apply to the bodies of migrants. It seems hard to believe that twenty years have passed since Agamben advanced his radical claim that European “extermination camps” were being “re-opened” in the form of immigrant detention facilities —a claim he grounds historically by asserting that interwar practices of internment led to concentration camps and, ultimately, the Holocaust.[17] Putting aside both his historical claims and the philosophical conclusions he draws from them, Agamben clearly anticipated important questions about the relationship of nativity, territory and rights that were central to the Tribunal’s aims.[18] Recourse to Agamben highlighted the complexity of the Tribunal’s decision to invoke the Russell Tribunal—and more specifically its first round of hearings in Stockholm, which charged the US with genocide—and suggests that members relied on the moral weight of past genocide and the pivotal place of the Holocaust in European identity to construct Tribunal 12’s own authority and urgency. While Tribunal 12 deliberately begged the question of comparison, its strategic self-positioning in a longer genealogy of citizen’s tribunals that, in fact, turned on rhetorical and historical comparison to establish dramatic legal equivalencies underwrote its success—and arguably the success of any documentary form rooted in techniques of aesthetic generalization—in producing a potential political response from its audience.[19]

Moreover, Tribunal 12 was similarly composed of a fluid international complement of well-known intellectuals and activists.[20] The earliest examples of the citizens’ tribunal are the 1933 hearings on the Reichstag arson and the 1936 inquiry into the Moscow show trials, widely known as the Dewey Commission for its chair, the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, and with which Russell was familiar. These early tribunals represented an important development in the influence of international public opinion and the potential of extrajudicial, extraterritorial inquiries to challenge state authority on the basis of rights claims. Russell’s Tribunal marked a key moment in their evolution because, unlike its predecessors, it called to account not individuals but systems, structures and policies.[21] Its members envisioned a model for future use that drew on the drama, moral force and legal standing of the Nuremberg precedent, but eschewed its association with “victors’ justice.”[22] According to Klinghoffer et al, “International citizens’ tribunals can therefore serve as a corrective mechanism through which public intellectuals mobilize world public opinion against powerful countries shielded from sanctions under international law. If the absence of effective and permanent legal structures is the problem, then tribunals may offer an appropriate solution.”[23]

Tribunal 12 extended this lineage. In the course of sessions devoted to border control, asylum, undocumented migrants and detention and deportation, its jurors listened carefully to expert witnesses and actors reading migrant testimony.[24] Prosecutors presented the case against current immigration policies and practices, calling witnesses and explaining how their testimony demonstrated violations of international and European law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 14), the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees (Art. 31) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Art. 12.2).[25] Rights violations are enabled in no small part by the extension and securitization of the border through private surrogates such as commercial airlines and Frontex, as well as “push-back” agreements with North African governments. Increasingly, individuals are arrested and detained before they have even crossed a border, and may be relegated to detention centers, which one witness termed “extraterritorial dumping grounds for people who are deemed to be out of place.”

Graphic Design: Studio Parasto Backman
Graphic Design: Courtesy of Studio Parasto Backman

Dr. Leanne Weber described a series of geographic and demographic displacements, including the displacement of the border itself; the displacement of border-related deaths from visibility (most notably in the proliferation of the “nautical graveyards” associated with the Mediterranean route); and the displacement of power from state to contractor—a process which enables the displacement of responsibility for rights violations and deaths. The prosecutorial refrain “We accuse Europe” aimed to re-place accountability and make visible these and other mechanisms of bordering.

During the Tribunal’s fifth and final session, the jury itself took center stage, with its members offering both personal statements and a collectively composed verdict. The jury condemned European governments for violating international law and what it broadly termed “foundational norms,” including but not limited to human rights and the principle of equal moral worth of all persons regardless of citizenship or resident status. Consequently, the jury called for states to end restrictive practices that prevent asylum seekers and refugees from reaching Europe and to comply with legal obligations that its member states have undertaken voluntarily as signatories to international human rights conventions. The verdict concluded with a statement on the role of European civil society—including immigrant struggles for justice—as a critical force for discussing and developing alternatives to existing state practices. Individual jurors underscored the role of migrants not only as victims, but as social actors.

This leads me to the third reason behind my interest: Tribunal 12 not only exemplifies ongoing cultural efforts to assign moral and political responsibility for policies that endanger migrants, selectively criminalize mobility, and extend and privatize state borders, it is also a direct outcome of advocacy work, a case of people in civic organizations choosing a performance medium to articulate new political subjectivities. A clear instance in which art is not auxiliary but fundamental to politics, Tribunal 12 engenders what Janelle Reinelt calls “the potential explanatory power of performance to shape ideas, question truth claims, sway public opinion, and construct an aesthetics that sometimes functions as an epistemology.”[26] For the organizers of Tribunal 12, performance enabled the dramatic articulation of research and analysis with migrant testimony before an audience called upon to listen and reflect, taking advantage of documentary’s potential to illuminate how commonsensical understandings of such categories as credibility, legality and sovereignty are sustained by the exclusion of migrant voices from European political discourse.

Theatre’s capacity to communicate key paradigms of public discourse has led to a new inflection of documentary in the form of the rehearsed reading. Derek Paget describes how the genre privileges direct social intervention over more conventional theatrical values: “Using verbatim material, supporting a specific current cause, and often produced in association with an NGO or charitable organization, the ‘rehearsed reading’ apparently offers little in terms of theatricality even if it is clearly worthy and a valuable resource for activists.”[27] Paget’s discussion of the rehearsed reading’s place in a discontinuous documentary tradition focuses on formal differences and functional similarities, situating the genre in documentary theatre’s long-standing, cyclical resurgence in “troubled times.”[28]

While Tribunal 12’s name suggests an affinity with the tribunal drama of the 1960s, it closely approximated the rehearsed reading and its more modest aesthetic aims.[29] Set in a sparsely staged, black-box theatre, Tribunal 12 relied on a combination of documentary methods, including adjacency and indexicality (a balance of presumed contemporary knowledge and the projection of factual information and documents in support of spoken testimony).[30]

Tribunal 12, Kulturhuset, Stockholm, May 12, 2012. Photo: Kristina Wicksell/Kickpix
Tribunal 12, Kulturhuset, Stockholm, May 12, 2012. Photo: Kristina Wicksell/Kickpix

Drawing on the inherently dramatic nature of unsanctioned migration and the formally dramatic structure of legal proceedings, Tribunal 12’s choice of genre served multiple ends. Like other rehearsed readings, its minimalism maintained a tightly orchestrated focus on text and context and was conceived within a shifting arts landscape characterized by limited financial resources and the active negotiation of commitments among arts and advocacy organizations.

Expanding archives of and audiences for migrant testimony via the event, its digital broadcast and, subsequent, international cultural multipliers such as discussion fora at the Frankfurt Book Fair are the most immediate measure of the Tribunal’s success. Others include making expert academic testimony by scholars such as Jacqueline Bhabha, expert in health and human rights; Nicolas de Genova, geographer, anthropologist and social theorist of borders and migration; and Leanne Weber, criminologist specialized in border policing, accessible to a popular audience; and inserting the violation of rights to mobility, refuge and asylum into a discourse on widely recognized historical atrocities.

And, whereas previous citizens’ tribunals asserted their moral standing to investigate state actors based on their independence from states, Tribunal 12 was notably sponsored by and critical of the EU and its member states. Rather than compromising its standing, its departure from precedent could resolve substantive criticisms of the tribunal format as inherently biased.[31] By setting a self-critical agenda rather than one aimed at another state and its representatives, Tribunal 12 side-stepped major criticisms of the tribunal model as implying but failing to deliver on a legal right of the accused to participation: the “we” that accuses is also of the Europe that is accused, undercutting what Elin Diamond terms “the violence of we” in reality-based performance.[32] In this regard, the project’s enunciation of a plural subject arguably intervened into the history of migration, the history of the citizens’ tribunal as a form of advocacy and (re)presentation and the history of documentary theatre.

Figure 2. Prosecutor/Actress Lena Nylén and Expert Witnesses Professors Henry Ascher and Bridget Anderson. Photo: Kristina Wicksell/Kickpix
Figure 2. Prosecutor/Actress Lena Nylén and Expert Witnesses Professors Henry Ascher and Bridget Anderson.
Photo: Kristina Wicksell/Kickpix

Tribunal 12 actively revised documentary tradition in ways that do not map neatly onto the genre’s most celebrated contemporary examples. It shares documentary’s tendency since the 1990s to re-evaluate the status, type and scope of documents that make up any archive—most notably expanding it to include migrant testimony and small-scale social interactions.[33] At the same time, it eschewed typically postmodern and postdramatic inflections.[34] It is simply not in the interest of advocacy organizations to use documentary to question the nature of the real or our ability to access authentic histories; their aim is to magnify representative stories with recourse to the political potential of aesthetic generalization in order to elicit reflective empathy and action.

But neither does Tribunal 12 fall back on a 1960s “theatre of factual reports,” one that engages in a powerful, collective project that aims to establish a broad, publicly accessible archive, and takes advantage of the explanatory power of theatre—all elements key to Russell Tribunal member Peter Weiss’s internationally influential “Notes on Documentary Theatre.”[35] Instead, Tribunal 12 reflects a preference in recent documentary for “the unresolved problems of the present” over the “trial of history.”[36] Weiss’s roles in the documentary theatre and in Russell’s citizens’ tribunal also reminds us that practically and conceptually distinct spaces, temporalities and aesthetic modes of political performance have always been difficult to demarcate. Prominent members of citizens’ tribunals have long availed themselves of both literary and popular political platforms to effect change, from Jean-Paul Sartre, James Baldwin, Günther Anders, Julio Cortázar and Sara Lindman, in 1967, to Nawal el-Sadaawi, Henning Mankell and Nuruddin Farah, in 2012.

Tribunal 12 affirms and extends a tradition of author engagement, reaching explicitly back to historical forms and fora at the same time as its subject matter is resolutely contemporary. The performance space of today’s citizens’ tribunal intervenes in the present in part by situating contemporary movements of populations and individuals within a broader history of solidarity, advocacy and demands for political and moral justice where the tribunal drama restaged the past in service of the present.[37]

As the example of Kenan at the beginning of this article shows, one individual’s story, embedded in “expert testimony” and read by an actor as part of a novel intervention into the tradition of the citizens’ tribunal, creates a space for empathy even as it creates obstacles to identification (for example, by eschewing identity-based casting and limiting affective dimensions of performance). Refugees and other migrants are often dismissed as untrustworthy based on being in the precarious position of having to commit nationally illegal acts of border-crossing to avail themselves of internationally recognized legal rights. By ventriloquizing Kenan and restoring his words to a public archive of migration with significant moral and intellectual standing, Tribunal 12 effectively recuperated evidence that is excluded by the very structures and institutions it wishes to call to account.

Expert witness Gregor Noll, Professor of International Law at Lund University, in Sweden, testified that “[t]he personal account of the asylum seeker is the central piece of evidence in many asylum cases as some authorities and courts have no access to witnesses or to reasonably complete documentation of the relevant events.” At the same time, he explained, credibility assessment often fails to adhere to the European Court’s legal standard of assessing the credibility of facts, not persons. The result is frequently a process governed by subjective speculation rather than the rule of law. As expert witnesses and prosecutors explain that asylum applications routinely fail because applicants are seen to lack credibility, the performance medium itself restores that credibility to Kenan and other asylum seekers.

Paget explains that verbatim material draws its power from the simple fact of having been said.[38] Event moderator Arne Ruth asserted the same principle in his opening remarks, emphasizing: “We don’t have living witnesses here, but we have valid transcripts of experiences, statements made by real asylum seekers into Europe, so, it is not fiction; these are real cases brought forward to our attention by three actors who are, so to speak, impersonating these asylum seekers.” In this instance, the relationship of reality and representation is reciprocal: the Tribunal gains credibility via the perceived authenticity of migrant testimony at the same time as it confers credibility and (necessarily limited) visibility on migrant testimony in the act of its selection, repetition and public performance.

Wake notes that “the politics of visibility are deeply problematic for refugees, . . . who oscillate between ‘hypervisibility and invisibility.’”[39] In contradistinction to witness testimony in actual legal proceedings, the act of witnessing staged by Tribunal 12 was secondary and contingent. By comparison to the Russell Tribunal, which displayed graphic photographs, films, medical records and even witnesses’ wounded bodies, Tribunal 12 used a text-based approach to its ethical advantage, keeping visual images to a minimum and generating opportunities for what Wake terms “reverse visibility”—re-focusing media attention on public and private institutions and conditions that cast migration as crisis.[40] In spite of the risks testimonial projects take in asking migrants to provide accounts of themselves in ways that can reproduce their traumas, they can re-direct the power of spectacle from images of migrants that highlight victimization, suffering and radical alterity, revealing instead “the invisibility of power.”[41] Ideally, advocacy organizations engage in parallel processes, building creative platforms for migrants to articulate their own experiences and needs as political subjects.

Jury Members Saskia Sassen and Nurrudin Farrah. Photo: Kristina Wicksell/Kickpix
Jury Members Saskia Sassen and Nurrudin Farrah. Photo: Kristina Wicksell/Kickpix

Tribunal 12 embedded asylum seekers’ accounts of dangerous practices of (self-) smuggling within expert testimony and prosecutorial arguments about the current asylum regime in Europe as a system that criminalizes mobility and therefore requires smugglers. In support of their argument, prosecutors included testimony from an Afghan boy who accepted a smuggler’s offer of transport to Italy after two years of exploitation in a weaving mill. He spent days without food, water or access to clean air, painfully confined to the gas tank of a large truck with two other boys, only to be arrested immediately upon his arrival in Italy. Beaten and shocked until he agreed to fingerprinting, he was detained in an adult facility, denied medical attention and subjected to repeated attempts at sexual abuse by other prisoners. “No one listened to me and no one took me seriously,” he concluded.

Faith, a twelve-year-old child of an Eritrean mother and an Ethiopian father living in London, who also refused to be discounted, described her own pointed observations of how arbitrary and repeated round-ups and detentions of asylum seekers criminalize and exclude migrants. After four years in England, her family’s home was raided by armed police in the middle of the night and she initially wondered, “Have I done something wrong I don’t know about?” Faith goes on to describe the repeated counting of detainees, the erasure of names from white boards when families and individuals were deported—always at night—and her continued anxiety that she could be rearrested, detained and deported at any time.

Faith not only recognized and described how states seek to make arbitrary detention and deportation practices invisible; she elaborated how neighbors and schoolmates can and in rare instances insist on seeing: she believes that her family was ultimately released because of a petition drive. Together with testimony by Prof. Henry Ascher, Chair of the Swedish Pediatric Society’s Working Group on Child Refugees, on initiatives to provide medical and psychological care to illegalized migrants in violation of discriminatory laws, Faith’s account of her London neighbors’ solidarity recalls documentary strategies of “political mimesis,” a process by which audience members are prompted to act in response to the images or accounts of protest or political action with which they are confronted in the performance space.[42]

The status of refugees and the need for greater solidarity has attained new political urgency and media prominence with the mass arrival of Syrian refugees. A new series of public debates about the nature of Europe’s cultural and political integrity further highlights the contested status of borders within and at the margins of the EU. Increased migration and seismic shifts in public attention and attitudes toward both migration policy and migrants themselves have prompted numerous legal and political changes since Tribunal 12 was convened. Nonetheless, the evidence it collected and presented retains more than historical value.[43] While the Dublin Regulations (governing the obligation of third-country nationals to file asylum claims in the country of first entry) have twice been modified since they came into effect in 1997 (and were partially and temporarily suspended last year), their earlier iterations continue to shape regional attitudes and behaviors, and bear significantly on the geographic distribution of various non-Syrian refugee populations throughout the EU.

Moreover, evidence related to Frontex and the displacement of EU borders seems, if anything, to be more germane now, in light of the March 2016 agreement with Turkey to return third-country nationals who arrive via the Aegean Sea. These are but two strands of Tribunal 12’s evidence that remain key to what Yasemin Yildiz has termed a “coming to terms with the present”—a concept with critical purchase for expanding a discourse of human rights in tribunal drama and postwar citizens’ tribunals that took the Holocaust and Nuremberg as their primary referents to address new “migratory archives of traumatic memory,” which Deniz Utlu characterizes as without name or fixed location.[44] The work of consolidating such archives of migration must, like the Tribunal, be a transnational undertaking.

Far from being overtaken by recent developments in the politics and practice of mobility, the next stages of my research will show how Shahrazad and its affiliated projects, including Tribunal 12, provide a basis for contextually and historically sensitive analyses of migration, refuge, and the roles they play in European narratives about states, subjects and borders. Genealogies of advocacy initiatives and the new articulations of art and politics that they engender offer insights into changing regimes of visibility.[45] They also help us to re-focus our lines of inquiry vis-à-vis long-standing, twentieth-century debates about documentary and testimonial theatre; its apparently cyclical resurgence at key moments of economic and demographic crisis in the 1920s, 1960s and today; and, by extension, how Tribunal 12 engaged with a resurgent documentarism in European performance and grounded its claims to moral authority in Russell’s citizens’ tribunal even as it learned from the latter’s sometimes voyeuristic failings.

In Stockholm of 2012, the language of rights was less preoccupied with a recent European past and a discourse on genocide than on the moral and political efficacy of institutions that may be seen as their legacy. The decision to have prosecutors read migrant testimony uses the capacity of documentary theatre to make visible its own ventriloquism, wherein the readers/actors are never identical with the migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. This has a very different effect than might direct testimony, because it makes stories present at the same time as it makes visible the absence of the migrant, asylum seeker or refugee, his or her lack of freedom to speak publicly on his or her own behalf without the mediating efforts of transnational and regional solidarity networks.[46] Surely, more could be said about the practice and politics of embodiment and voice as it operates in tribunal theatre and in the citizens’ tribunal. Suffice it to say that both types of public performance can take an active role in constituting and activating migrant archives, in generating opportunities to construct alternative regimes of visibility, and in laying the groundwork for new forms of aesthetic and material solidarities.[47] For its part, Tribunal 12 placed a premium on listening to and reflecting on “stories for life,” cultivating new and expansive political communities that might one day make similar acts of ventriloquism superfluous.


Note: I attended Tribunal 12 with Andrew Oppenheimer and developed early insights into the event with him. He provided generous and thoughtful comments throughout my writing process. I am thankful to event organizer and Shahrazad’s Project Manager in Stockholm Oskar Ekstrøm for providing additional information about the event in e-mail correspondence in 2012, and especially to Peter Ripken, Shahrazad’s Frankfurt Project Manager, former Director of LitProm and President of International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), for speaking with me at length in 2016. He made his personal archive available to me while publicly held documents await accession. Petra Kassler of LitProm provided logistical support.


[1] All quotations of Tribunal 12 participants are drawn from personal, digital audio recordings of the event.
[2] Carol Martin uses this expansive term to describe a range of dramatic practices, including documentary, docudrama, verbatim theatre, tribunal theatre, theatre of witness, theatre of fact, nonfiction theatre and reality-based theatre. “Introduction: Dramaturgy of the Real,” Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage, ed. Carol Martin (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010): 1-14. Here: 1.
[3] Wolfgang Ullrich, “Kunst und Flüchtlinge:Ausbeutung statt Einfühlung,” Perlentaucher. Das Kulturmagazin, June 20, 2016. Accessed June 27, 2016, https://www.perlentaucher.de/essay/wolfgag-ullrich-ueber-kunst-und-fluechtlinge.html.
[4] The 300-seat theatre was full throughout the day, and by the time of the final session, chairs had to be added to accommodate what had become a standing-room-only audience. Simultaneous, digital screenings of the event were held in twenty European cities. According to event organizer Oskar Exstrøm, an additional 6,000 people followed the proceedings on-line, in Sweden and abroad.
[5] According to the EU’s official website, Frontex was established in 2004 to promote, coordinate and develop “European border management in line with the EU fundamental rights charter.” However, only in 2009 did the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights become legally binding for Frontex. Since then, the agency has been criticized by non-governmental organizations for failure to comply with the Charter’s obligations, for example, in Greece, where migrants were detained under conditions that have been criticized by the European Court of Human Rights. During the Tribunal, prosecutors drew on witness testimony to argue that the EU and its member states effectively obscure and avoid responsibility for the treatment of migrants by outsourcing border controls to points of contact beyond Europe’s territorial borders. Adding credence to their claims, they reported that European Ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros was pursuing an inquiry into Frontex and its strategies for compliance with fundamental rights standards in its operations at the time of the event.
[6] Attilio Favorini, “Representation and Reality: The Case of Documentary Theatre,” Theatre Survey 35.2 (Nov. 1994):31-43. Here: 32.
[7] Private Archive of Peter Ripken. “Final Technical Implementation Report. Grant Agreement no. 2007-1769/001-001.” Undated draft (presumably 2012).
[8] Private Archive of Peter Ripken. “Final Technical Implementation Report.” The organizations were: Sølvberget KF (Stavanger), Catalan PEN (Barcelona), Passa Porta (Brussels), LitProm (Frankfurt am Main), Writers’ Centre Norwich (Norwich) and Kulturforvaltingen (Stockholm).
[9] Private Archive of Peter Ripken. Working document “What are the objectives of the project and how will they be met?” (presumably 2007).
[10] Private Archive of Peter Ripken. “Project Implementation Programme. Detailed Timetable for the Implementation of the Project Activities.” n.d. (presumably 2007).
[11] Private Archive of Peter Ripken. “Final Technical Implementation Report.”
[12] These include examples from a range of countries and genres —Austrian examples such as Elfriede Jelinek’s The Charges, Maxi Obexer’s Ghost Ship and Illegal Helpers; German examples such as Merle Kröger’s Lost at Sea, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, went, gone, and performances by the Berlin-based Center for Political Beauty; or English examples Actors for Human Rights and iceandfire’s numerous verbatim productions. Thomas Irmer has written on the resurgence of documentarism in Germany; Derek Paget in the UK and the USA: Irmer, “A Search for New Realities. Documentary Theatre in Germany,” TDR: The Drama Review 50.3 (Fall 2016): 16-28. Derek Paget, “Acts of Commitment. Activist Arts, the Rehearsed Reading, and Documentary Theatre,” New Theatre Quarterly 0.02 (May 2010): 173-193.
[13] Caroline Wake, “To Witness Mimesis: The Politics, Ethics, and Aesthetics of Testimonial Theatre in Through the Wire,” Modern Drama 56.1 (Spring 2013): 102-125. Here: 103.
[14] Private Archive of Peter Ripken. Working document “What are the objectives…”; “Final Technical Implementation Report.” To date, I have not been able to access more detailed documentation regarding the first of these frame events, a planned 2008 Stavanger Refugee Tribunal referenced only briefly in the documents cited here.
[15] Additional hearings were held in Roskilde, Denmark (usually referenced as the Copenhagen hearings, although the Vietnam Tribunal was explicitly denied permission to meet in the Danish capital) and in Tokyo, Japan.
[16] John Duffett, “Editor’s Preface,” Against the Crime of Silence. Proceedings of the International War Crimes Tribunal, ed. John Duffett (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 11.
[17] Giorgio Agamben, “We Refugees,” trans. Michael Rocke, Symposium 49.2 (1995): 114-119.
[18] For a summary and critique of Agamben’s treatment of “the refugee” as spectacle rather than solution, see Patricia Owens, “Reclaiming ‘Bare Life’? Against Agamben on Refugees,” International Relations 24.4 (December 2009): 567-582. By contrasting Agamben and Arendt, she demonstrates the necessity to address rights claims within a framework of political humanism.
[19] Ulla Hahn uses the term aesthetic generalization to describe how “by representing a specific event or series of events in a new, aestheticized context, an author elicits partisan solidarity with a role which is no longer identical with its historical agent.” Literatur in der Aktion. Zur Entwicklung operative Literaturformen in der Bundesrepublik (Wiesbaden: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft Athanaion, 1978), 59. My translation.
[20] For a complete list of Russell Tribunal members, see John Duffett, ed., Against the Crime of Silence. Proceedings of the International War Crimes Tribunal (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 17.
[21] Arthur Jay Klinghoffer and Judith Apter Klinghoffer, International Citizens’ Tribunals. Mobilizing Public Opinion to Advance Human Rights (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 10.
[22] See Bertrand Russell’s “Introduction” to the Tribunal Proceedings in Against the Crime of Silence, 3-4. Here: 4.
[23] Klinghoffer et al, 5.
[24] They were: Syrian philosopher Sadik Al-Azim, Egyptian writer, feminist, and activist Nawal El Saadawi, U.S.-based sociologist Saskia Sassen, Somali writer and women’s rights activist Nuruddin Farah, Iranian journalist and feminist leader Parvin Ardalan, Indian expert in international refugee law B.S. Chimni, and popular Swedish author and activist Henning Mankell.
[25] Hendrik Dahl (also artistic co-director and writer) and Lena Nylén took the roles of the prosecutors.
[26] Janelle Reinelt, “Toward a Poetics of Theatre and Public Events. In the Case of Stephen Lawrence,” TDR: The Drama Review 50.3 (Fall 2006): 69-86. Here: 72.
[27] Paget 181, 173. Similarly, Caroline Wake uses Jane Gaines’s concept of “political mimesis” to describe how audience members may be prompted to act in response to images of protest or political action with which they are confronted. Wake, 118.
[28] Paget, 173.
[29] On the different relation of performers to audience in verbatim theatre and tribunal theatre, with special emphasis on the latter’s attempt to “cast” the audience as interviewer, see Paget, 188.
[30] For more on these strategies in film and theatre, see Reinelt, 83.
[31] Klinghoffer et al, 7-9 and passim.
[32] Elin Diamond, “The Violence of ‘We’: Politicizing Identification,” Critical Theory and Performance, ed. Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach (Ann Arbor: U Mich P, 1992): 390-398.
[33] For concise periodizations of documentary theatre, see Irmer and Paget.
[34] On prominent examples Hans-Werner Kroesinger and Rimini Protokoll, see Irmer. On the relationship of postdocumentrary and postdrama, see Aline Vennemann, “Zwischen Postdramatik und Postdokumentarismus. Peter Wagner, Elfriede Jelinek und das Dokumentartheatre,” Germania 54 (2014): 25-37. Carol Martin advances the term “constructivist postmodernism” to describe techniques in the theatre of the real in the twenty-first century. “Introduction,” 3.
[35] Peter Weiss, “Notes Towards a Definition of Documentary Theatre,” trans. Heinz Bernard, Theatre Quarterly, 1.1 (January-March 1971): 41-43.
[36] Irmer, 19.
[37] Expert testimony by Nicolas de Genova, Reader in Urban Geography at King’s College in London, and Bridget Anderson, Senior Researcher at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society at the University of Oxford provided the most sustained attention to the history and politics of authorizing different forms of mobility in Europe.
[38] Paget, 185.
[39] Wake, 105.
[40] Klinghoffer et al describe the types of evidence presented at the Russell Tribunal, as of course do the published proceedings. Wake, 118-20. Wake writes extensively about this and other associated ethical questions, including the possibility of traumatization, retraumatization and treating the refugee as spectacle.
[41] See Wake, 116, 120.
[42] Jane Gaines, cited in Wake, “To Witness,” 118.
[43] Yasemin Yildiz remarked in a recent talk that the Syrian crisis has resulted in a renewed invisibilization of the Mediterranean Route and the establishment of new memories and associative networks in Eastern and Central Europe. “This Migration which is not one: Refugees, Migrants, and (Turkish) German Studies,” Binghamton University German Studies Colloquium Keynote Address, Apr. 15, 2016. Attention to Tribunal 12 can also contribute to restoring other recent migrations to visibility.
[44] Yildiz, “The migration which is not one….”; Deniz Utlu, “Das Archiv der Migration,” Der Freitag October 31, 2011. Accessed July 14, 2016. https://www.freitag.de/autoren/der-freitag/das-archiv-der-migration. Ulrike Garde discusses transnational performance, local audience expectations, and the creation of collective memory: “Spotlight on the Audience: Collective Creativity in Recent Documentary and Reality Theatre from Australia and Germany,” Collective Creativity: Collaborative Work in the Sciences, Literature and the Arts. Ed. Gerhard Fischer, Florian Vaßen (Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi): 313-28.
[45] Jacques Rancière develops his notions of the “distribution of the sensible” and “regimes of visibility” in The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Continuum, 2004); Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004); and Aesthetics and its Discontents, trans. Steven Corcoran (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2009). I introduce and synthesize both concepts in Revolutionary Subjects. German Literatures and the Limits of Aesthetic Solidarity with Latin America (Berlin: DeGruyter, 2015): 343-46.
[46] See Paget, esp. 181-185 on standing for in naturalistic theatre versus speaking for in verbatim theatre; on the extension of communication through theatre; and on the power that accrues to verbatim material simply by dint of having been said.
[47] Wake addresses ethical issues of embodiment specific to casting; Martin describes the pivotal relationship of technologies of reproduction, replication, and simulation to the text and the body. Carol Martin, “Bodies of Evidence,” Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage, ed. Carol Martin (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010): 17-26.


**Jamie H. Trnka is Associate Professor of World Languages and Cultures and Chair of Latin American and Women’s Studies at The University of Scranton. Her research interests include literature and politics; paraliterary writing; literatures of migration and exile; and social scientific approaches to globalization and culture. She is the author of Revolutionary Subjects: German Literatures and the Limits of Aesthetic Solidarity with Latin America (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015).

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“We Accuse Europe”: Staging Justice for Refugees, Migrants and Asylum Seekers in Europe