HR COLUMN: Michael Ratner and Europe’s Fight for Human Rights

August 25, 2016
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Michael Ratner, who passed away in May, was an internationalist in the best sense of the word.  That meant for him in the first place to combat the use and abuse of power by U.S. actors in, and very often outside, their own country. A tribute from Wolfgang Kaleck, founder and head of the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights.

Michael Ratner in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington DC, Jan. 11, 2006. Photo Jonathan McIntosh, CC-BY-2.5

Michael Ratner in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington DC, Jan. 11, 2006. Photo Jonathan McIntosh, CC-BY-2.5

When I visited New York to attend the memorial service for Michael Ratner, the late head of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), his family kindly invited me to stay in their home in the Village. In the room where Michael had spent most of the last weeks of his life, I saw, among the few books Michael was reading, Adam Hochschild’s book Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War on a shelf above Michael’s bed.

Michael worked and fought in the tradition of the internationalists described in this book, those who risked their lives in the struggle for the Spanish republic and the chance of building a socially just society. He was an internationalist in the best sense of the word. That meant for him in the first place to combat the use and abuse of power by U.S. actors in, and very often outside, their own country, and there was—and still is—no shortage of work for him and the others in the same struggle: Vietnam, Nicaragua, Haiti; and during the last 15 years Afghanistan and Iraq, when he and I met in the struggle against forced disappearance and torture of terrorism suspects.

Michael Ratner at ALBA’s 2013 event in New York. Photo Nicholas Chan

Michael Ratner at ALBA’s 2013 event in New York. Photo Nicholas Chan

Together with Peter Weiss and the Center for Constitutional Rights we filed criminal complaints against Donald Rumsfeld in Germany in 2004 and 2006. We didn’t want to accept that after the revelation of the Abu Ghraib photos only the dozen rotten apples, as they were called by government officials when they talked about Sabrina Harman and Lynndie England and the other low rank soldiers, would be prosecuted. From many reports and testimonies we knew that the top officials from the Bush administration, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and former DOD Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, their lawyers and the CIA planned and set the scene for systematic torture after 9/11, first in Afghanistan, then in the secret detention sites, Guantanamo and Iraq.


“If these laws cannot be applied against the powerful,” Michael would say, “what are they made for?”


We litigated this case against the advice of established human rights lawyers who feared that using universal jurisdiction laws against such a powerful actor would result in a terrible defeat and a considerable backlash in the development of the law. Michael was always very relaxed in relation to these criticisms and would say: “If these laws cannot be applied against the powerful, what are they made for?”

Moreover, it is one thing to challenge U.S. actions politically and legally within the U.S., but something much more courageous to file a criminal complaint against an acting secretary of defense before a foreign court. With his willingness to challenge power and to take risks, Michael was a big step ahead of other actors both in the U.S. and in the international human rights and legal community. When we started this litigation against former top officials it seemed that we were premature. But years later more facts about the U.S. torture program enabled courts in Europe, such as a criminal court in Milano, Italy and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg released a number of judgments ruling that the CIA Extraordinary Rendition Program is blatantly illegal—confirming Michael’s legal and political intuition. Today no politician or CIA official who was involved in the torture program can travel safely to Europe; they all have to fear prosecution.

Michael Ratner in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington DC, 11 January 2006. Photo Jonathan McIntosh. CC-BY-2.5

Michael Ratner in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington DC, 11 January 2006. Photo Jonathan McIntosh. CC-BY-2.5

Michael’s place was the world, but not only as a place to struggle or to file lawsuits. No, he was genuinely interested in the places he visited and in the people he met.

His fighting spirit, his experience, his personality were crucial when we decided to establish the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in Berlin in 2007. It was the experience which I and my colleagues acquired while cooperating with the Center for Constitutional Rights that made us aware of the necessity of an organizational framework beyond the classical lawyer’s practice to pursue strategic human rights litigation on a meaningful scale. It was Michael’s encouragement and his trust in our ideas that convinced us to go ahead with the founding of our organization.

ECCHR is litigating in the same areas as Michael’s home base, CCR, against state actors who planned torture and war crimes, using universal jurisdiction laws, against western corporations, involved in human rights violations in the Global South and the endless series of breaches of fundamental laws in so called counterterrorism measures.

Michael was there from the first moment and during the critical first years when there was no funding for the first litigation project of this kind in Europe. He never doubted that ultimately our project would succeed against all odds and his advice and support were instrumental in reaching this aim. Until last summer, he never missed a single session of our advisory board which he chaired.

He was not one of these egocentric leftist macho lawyers, instead he was always willing to share his experience, openly and honestly, never claiming a special role for himself. He was genuinely interested in the causes for which we fought and the people we were cooperating with.

He was characterized by what you can call revolutionary patience and modesty, and it is fair to say my colleagues and myself could learn a lot from him in this regard.

He was a “one-man force multiplier,” as David Cole recently described him, and mobilized and inspired younger and older lawyers in the U.S. and Europe. From the beginning of ECCHR’s existence he insisted that we litigate cases of human rights violations of migrants because this was and remains the most urgent human rights problem in Europe. Rather than looking at the violations elsewhere, European citizens and lawyers should try to enforce the rights of Europe’s most marginalized community. Michael was very happy when we started to litigate against the inhumane European border regime, especially our case against Spain at the European Court of Human Rights because of the illegal push backs of sub-Saharan refugees who successfully jumped over the fences from Moroccan soil to the Spanish enclaves in Ceuta and Melilla.


Today no politician or CIA official who was involved in the torture program can travel safely to Europe; they all have to fear prosecution.


He also loved our reparation claim against a German supermarket chain on behalf of a Pakistani organization who represents the victims of a fire on September 11, 2012 when 260 people died in a textile factory in Karachi that produced for the German market. And obviously he strongly supported our cases against U.S. torturers in Germany, France, Belgium, and Spain and against the use of lethal drones in Germany and Italy.

Our transnational community of radical political lawyers has lost one of its central characters, but I lost more: I lost a friend. In my last encounter with him he told me that he had always loved to come to Berlin, but he did not talk about litigation and the more or less exciting meetings of our advisory board, he meant the parties and exhibitions at our offices.

We will miss him.

Wolfgang Kaleck is a German civil rights attorney, founding General Secretary for the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, and U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden’s legal support in Europe.

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