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Toxic mortgages and the crisis

In 2007, the North American banks admitted to having 6 million bad loans due to the non-payment of so-called subprime or toxic mortgages. During the previous decade, like in Spain, growth of the North-American economy was based on the construction sector. In order to find a market for these new homes, mortgages were granted for amounts far higher than the people receiving them were able to pay, with a high risk, later confirmed, of non-payment.

This phenomenon led several of the major North American banks to bankruptcy. Fuelled by economic interdependence worldwide, it spread rapidly through Europe and Asia and is therefore considered to be responsible for unleashing the global financial and economic crisis.

Given this situation, European and American governments used public money to rescue the banks and keep the financial system afloat. Nevertheless, no subsidies were created for the millions of people who had lost their homes and none of the social policies required for helping them to deal with the crisis were activated.

This neglect by the State, plus their enormously precarious situation, has obliged numerous social groups to create networks providing support and a place of association from which to join forces in fighting this neoliberal capitalism that privileges a few and ignores the vast majority.

Civil society is therefore taking matters into its own hands, setting up processes to challenge these human rights violations, born from neoliberal business practices, before ordinary courts of justice. However, the big industrial and financial corporations, with their sophisticated legal teams and great influence on the political and legal powers, have continually blocked many of these cases meaning that they were thrown out or, if judged, landed sentences in their favour.

In view of the difficulty of seeing justice done in the ordinary national or international courts, the social movements, not only in the north, but in the south too, are organising popular courts which, despite not being legally binding, do have great moral legitimacy. These are simulations of trials at which existing laws are applied, where there is an accusation and a defence and where a court, consisting of judges, must give a verdict.

These trials are the heirs of the so-called Russell Tribunal or International War Crimes Tribunal. This organisation established by the British philosopher and activist Bertrand Russell and seconded by the famous French playwright, Jean-Paul Sartre, investigated and evaluated American foreign policy and military invention in Vietnam in 1954.

New “Russell tribunals” have since been established to judge, among others, what happened in the Chilean military coup of 1973, in the Iraq War (2004) and in the 2009 Palestine-Israel conflict. But perhaps the ethic tribunal currently enjoying greatest repercussion is the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, which principally judges violations of human rights by European multinationals in Latin America.

This Tribunal, which has already held sessions in Vienna, Lima and Madrid, seeks to demonstrate that the impacts of transnational companies are not isolated or accidental cases, but that they are the result of development, production and consumption models established according to the rules of global capitalism. They also condemn the impunity and permissiveness shown to the big corporations, and the connivance of the governments whose territories are being pillaged.

The desired result is not economic compensation, but to recover their dignity and gain moral recognition of the injustice suffered. The tribunal also serves as a tool for raising awareness, endeavouring to shine light on situations of violence and violations of human rights which the government and the media have tried to keep under wraps.

This is an instrument which not only offers legitimacy and strength, but serves as an excellent legal tool, given that it gathers clues, seeks people who can testify as witnesses and documents the cases, meaning that it can be used before any ordinary court.

At the end of the day, whether it is a group of neighbours affected by toxic mortgages in Ohio, a group of Indians suffering the consequences of fossil extractions in Ecuador, or a European trade union group impoverished by labour reforms... the most important point is that organised civil society is trying to overcome the obstacles that prevent its access to ordinary justice and seek civic, non-violent alternatives to counteract this global injustice.