Why would a Berlin-based European human rights organization celebrate CCR’s 50 years of work and dedicate an entire day of their conference to the legacy of Michael Ratner? Because for more than two decades, CCR’s work has been deeply enmeshed in the international human rights framework, and Michael and former CCR vice presidents Peter Weiss and Rhonda Copelon were visionary leaders in using the law creatively to address the global implications U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Along with many CCR staff members over the years, they helped shape what human rights accountability looks like for U.S. officials, corporations, the religious right, and dictators around the world.
Given the outcome of the presidential election, it is even more urgent that we tap into this historical work in order to guide our efforts going forward, challenging an incoming president who has shown disdain for human rights and the rule of law. Michael Ratner’s legacy tells us that we must be unwavering in our pursuit of justice, and willing to go where (and when) others won’t. On Thursday, November 4, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) convened lawyers from around the world to teach and learn about CCR’s unique history of international human rights work. We didn’t know then just how important reflecting on that history would be for determining the path forward. The colloquium, hosted by ECCHR and the Bertha Foundation, was called “Challenging the Powerful with Legal Means” and included presentations from former CCR board members Jules Lobel, Peter Weiss, and Michael Steven Smith; former staff member Margaret Kunstler; CCR board president Katherine Franke; and staff members Katie Gallagher, Baher Azmy, and me. Members of the Ratner family and CCR’s four new Bertha Fellows were also in attendance.
In addition to CCR’s technical ability to litigate extraordinary cases over the years, the most provocative discussions were about why and how we litigated them. For example, after Michael Smith gave a detailed and evocative telling of the early history and formation of CCR, Margaret Kunstler spoke about CCR’s Central American litigation in the 1980s, those endeavors firmly pitted against the U.S. government’s role in propping up dictators, destabilizing progressive governments in the region, and the murder and torture of activists. She spoke about CCR’s special role going to danger zones, collecting the facts, and exposing them though litigation and media strategies. These efforts led to a brilliant effort Michael launched, creating a movement support network within CCR so that both activists and the media would have access to the information we uncovered, in order to challenge and change US policies. We continue similar efforts to this day, adding advocacy, multimedia, and social media strategies to the mix.
Peter Weiss’s presentation outlined the creation of a more concrete, focused international human rights strategy at CCR, throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, exemplified by Filartiga v. Peña-Irala, the first case to establish the Alien Tort Statue as a vehicle to address human rights violations around the world through U.S. courts. Jules Lobel detailed the many anti-war efforts that he and Michael spearheaded, including those filed with dissenting members of Congress as plaintiffs. In his remarks, Jules noted two especially important things: first, that you must fight the militaristic aspects of state power abroad if you’re going to successfully fight abusive state power at home; and second, that you can’t file such cases expecting that you’re going to win, but it is possible to have “success without legal victory” because it raises societal awareness about how illegal wars are fought in our name—even as popular sentiment pushes for them.
Baher Azmy and Katie Gallagher spoke eloquently about the rapid response and massive scope of CCR’s representation of the men in Guantánamo, and our groundbreaking litigation against U.S. corporations that were contracted by the government and involved in human rights abuses in the so-called War on Terror. Katherine Franke spoke about CCR’s methodology and connection to social movements in our litigation and advocacy, noting that in our work, “our client’s story must shape the law and not the other way around.” I spoke on CCR’s work with the Movement for Black Lives and how supporting its leadership both builds power in the burgeoning movement and fights power that oppresses the communities that they represent. Michael’s long-time personal assistant Robin Martin gave an at-once hilarious and chilling dramatic reading of the hate mail Michael received over the last 15 years, reminding us that moving forward cutting-edge, radical work can come at great personal and emotional cost.
All of us were deeply honored by the graciousness and generosity of ECCHR and the Bertha Foundation in devoting an entire day to Michael’s legacy and CCR’s ongoing work. But perhaps more than that, we once again had an opportunity to celebrate with dear friends and allies of the man who guided CCR to become what we are now. As I’ve mentioned often at these celebrations, Michael’s ongoing presence in the work we do and the love of his friends is counterbalanced by his absence at these events, ones that he would be proud of and would be an active participant in. As the day came to a close, it became a bit clearer to me why human rights lawyers from around the world would come to celebrate Michael and CCR. In addition to the work we do, it’s the extraordinary relationships that Michael built that requires conversation, convocation, and, above all, action to make the world the place we want. Given the results of the election, we are facing the very real prospect of abuses of power, and attacks on the most vulnerable and visible among us, on a level unlike anything we have seen before.
But CCR has a history of fighting back hard against such abuses, most recently in cases like Turkmen v. Ashcroft, Al Shimari v. CACI et al., and Hassan v. City of New York. Turkmen, which we will be arguing in front of the Supreme Court in January, will be a bellwether case for the years ahead—the outcome of which will either enshrine one of Trump’s signature talking points or determine, once and for all, that no one is above the law. We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will allow officials from a previous administration to be held accountable for racial and religious profiling, abusive immigration practices, and harsh treatment in jail facilities, and help prevent the incoming administration from committing new atrocities. Human rights work during what is bound to be one of the darkest times in U.S. history will not be without cost. But that cost is nothing compared to what would be the cost of failing to act. As CCR turns to our history to help determine the path forward, we invite you all to join us in continuing the work of Michael Ratner and so many others: unwavering opposition to injustice.