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Suing Dictators Around the World: A Look at How Michael Ratner Helped Reshape Human Rights Law

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Michael Ratner’s activism and human rights work dated back to the 1960s. He was a student at Columbia Law School during the 1968 student strike. He joined the Center for Constitutional Rights in 1971. His first case centered on a lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners killed and injured in the Attica prison uprising in upstate New York. Ratner was deeply involved in Latin America and the Caribbean, challenging U.S. policy in Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and elsewhere. In 1981, he brought the first challenge under the War Powers Resolution to the use of troops in El Salvador, as well as a suit against U.S. officials on behalf of Nicaraguans raped, murdered and tortured by U.S.-backed contras. In 1991, he led the center’s challenge to the authority of President George H.W. Bush to go to war against Iraq without congressional consent. A decade later, he would become a leading critic of the George W. Bush administration, filing lawsuits related to Guantánamo, torture, domestic surveillance and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He also helped launch the group Palestine Legal to defend the rights of protesters in the U.S. calling for Palestinian human rights. We speak to three close friends of Ratner, all fellow attorneys: Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch; Michael Smith, board member of the Center for Constitutional Rights; and Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange, I wanted to go to a video produced by the Ratner family to mark Michael’s 60th birthday, talking about his legal legacy.

BETH STEVENS: He has worked on a series of cases in different areas that are just pushing the ability to raise international human rights in U.S. courts.

REPORTER: For Helen Todd, nothing could justify the East Timor massacre, which killed her son Kamal. And today, a United States court agreed.

HELEN TODD: It’s been a long time, and I’ve come halfway around the world. But I feel satisfied that at last a court has said, “This is wrong.”

REPORTER: Kamal was one of 200 killed in the student protest. And the Indonesian general who ordered his troops to open fire has now been ordered to pay.

MICHAEL RATNER: And it affected the judge very heavily. The judge, who would—was not familiar with this law, not familiar—probably didn’t know East Timor from, you know, Timbuktu, was incredibly—you could see she was incredibly moved. And we all left—left, I think, feeling—you know, feeling bad, obviously, about what happened, but very, very good that we had gotten—after a lot of work and a lot of people’s efforts, gotten it to a trial where it was really heard.

LIZZIE RATNER: He’s really, I think, helped pioneer this type of tort law, where you can actually sue dictators or sue war criminals from within the United States.

BETH STEVENS: I found out early in one fall that this general was studying at the Harvard School of Government. And the students worked for most of the school year pulling together information about the general’s role in genocide in Guatemala.

RAY BRESCIA: We needed to develop some of the facts, and the only way that we could really do some pieces were to actually interview the general. And so I sort of posed as this student doing some research on Guatemala.

BETH STEVENS: Michael and I flew up to Boston and went to Harvard graduation with the papers in hand.

RAY BRESCIA: Michael is not afraid to sue anyone at any time.

BETH STEVENS: He’s still wearing his Harvard graduation robes, and the process server, with a big smile, held out the papers, called his name, shook his hand. And General Gramajo took the papers with a big smile.

LIZZIE RATNER: And he’s won these huge cases. But, of course, many of the dictators have not forked over the billions of dollars that their victims are due.

AMY GOODMAN: That, an excerpt of a family video that was produced for Michael Ratner’s 60th birthday. That story that you heard, the attorney Beth Stevens talking about the lawsuit against Héctor Alejandro Gramajo, who was graduating from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. In the corner, you see Michael’s profile. I was there, along with journalist Allan Nairn, as they, Beth Stevens and Michael Ratner and the private investigator, slapped Héctor Alejandro Gramajo with this lawsuit as he was walking in to get his Harvard Kennedy School degree, slapping him with a lawsuit for crimes against humanity.

We are joined by a roundtable of people to remember Michael Ratner, who died on Wednesday of complications due to cancer here in New York City, Michael Ratner, the longtime former head of the Center for Constitutional Rights. We’re joined by Michael Smith, his colleague, co-author and friend, as well, Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch and Jules Lobel, joining us from Pittsburgh, Julian Assange in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. Give us the span of his work, Reed.

REED BRODY: You know, from defending human rights in the United States to defending Central American revolutions against the United States, from defending HIV-positive Haitians quarantined in Guantánamo to defending Muslims taken to Guantánamo 10 years later, you know, from defending foreign—from suing American torturers abroad to suing, as we saw, foreign torturers in America, to defending whistleblowers. Over 50 years, Michael was always instinctively on the right side of every battle, fighting the right battle from the right trench. You know, he had this unerring ability to know where to be at the right time.

AMY GOODMAN: Reed, you were arrested with Michael in 1984. Can you talk—and William Kunstler, right?

REED BRODY: Yes. It was—

AMY GOODMAN: And Arthur Kinoy? Can you talk about the circumstances?

REED BRODY: Sure. I had actually just come back from Nicaragua, where I documented systematic atrocities by the U.S.-backed contras, who were trying to undermine the Sandinista revolution. And there was a sit-in at the Federal Building in downtown Manhattan, organized by the National Lawyers Guild. And Michael was there, Bill Kunstler, Arthur Kinoy, Barbara Dudley, Ron Kuby, [Marilyn] Clements. And we were all—we were all arrested. But Michael didn’t stop there. When the International Court of Justice in The Hague ordered that the United States stop funding and supporting the contras, Michael and Jules Lobel and the CCR went into court, saying, “Well, you know, let’s enforce this order.”

And actually, Michael asked me to go down to Nicaragua to talk to Americans who might be in harm’s way if the court—if contra funding continued. And I interviewed and took an affidavit from a friend named Ben Linder, who wrote in his affidavit that if the United States kept funding the contras, he was in danger of life and limb. And, of course, the lawsuit failed. The aid to the—an injunction was not granted. And Ben Linder was killed, the first American to be executed, the only American to be executed, by the U.S.-backed contras in Nicaragua. And then Michael defended the Linder family for many years in their suits against the contras and against the United States.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Michael Smith, for years, you co-hosted a show, Law and Disorder, with Michael Ratner. Talk about—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On WBAI, yes. Talk about how you first met him, and also his perspective on the law and how lawyers dealt with the law.

MICHAEL SMITH: I lived around the corner from Michael 30-some years ago. Michael had just gotten elected as the president of the National Lawyers Guild. I was in a four-floor walkup, and he schlepped up one night, and he asked me if I would be on the editorial board of Guild Notes, which is the guild magazine. So he signed me up, and that’s when we started out working together. We did six books together. He did the foreword or the introduction or a chapter in a number of them.

We did the Che Guevara book. Michael greatly loved and admired Che, and he suspected that the U.S. story about Che’s death was BS. And so he did a FOIA request. And years went by, and nothing happened. And then, one day—and he was telling me. We were walking down the street, and he said, “You know,” he said, “I just got this huge box of documents from the FBI and the CIA and the Defense Department and the White House. And what should we do?” So, I was representing Ocean Press at the time. And I called them up, and I said, “I think we’ve got a book here. Can you hold up putting out your catalog ’til we look through it?” And they said, “Sure.” So, Michael and I and my wife Debbie looked through it, and we figured it out, and we put it all together, and we sent it down to Australia. We put out our first book. We were on the show with you, Amy. It was 20 years ago.

And then, out of nowhere, 10 years later, without Michael making a further request, he got another box of documents. And we looked at those. And there had been a lot of historical work done in the meantime. So we were able to take these new documents—I mean, stuff on White House stationery that said, “The troops we trained finally got him,” a memo to Johnson, the president, stuff like that. And we put the story together. And we realized that there was a prior agreement with the Bolivian dictatorship. The CIA had two agents that were running intelligence. The Department of Defense was funding everything from ballots to bullets, funding the Bolivian army that captured Che. The CIA agents were working the intelligence. They captured Che. And they had a prior agreement with the head of the Bolivian military that if they captured, then they’d kill him. And so, that was America’s doing, and we proved that. And that book is all over Cuba. They sell it for 25 cents. It was featured last year at the International Book Fair. It’s all over Argentina, where Che—and it’s even coming out now in Iran in Farsi, and it’s going to be distributed in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. So, Michael made a contribution there.

AMY GOODMAN: And Che Guevara killed in October 1967 in Bolivia.

MICHAEL SMITH: That’s right. And the moral responsibility for that, the actual responsibility for the assassination, which was a political murder, lies on the United States. There’s no statute of limitations to murder. The two people that directed the killing are still alive. They’re in Florida.

AMY GOODMAN: They are?

MICHAEL SMITH: And that was one of the many contributions that Michael made.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this whole issue of he was a lawyer who did not really overestimate the power or the requirements of the law?

MICHAEL SMITH: He didn’t think that—he deeply believed in democracy and the rule of law. And he didn’t think that capitalism was compatible with that. He thought maybe fascism was, but certainly not—and we can see, what’s going on now, he was absolutely clear-sighted on that. Michael initially started off, like all of us, as, you know, liberals, thinking that the law was a civilized way of solving disputes. It may flawed here or there, but it could be fixed and so on. Well, we all quickly got over that notion. And Michael came to believe that the law was a means of social control by the 1 percent, who would fight to keep their control, by any means necessary, as long as possible. And that was what the law was. And Michael sought to promote true democratic law and to undermine that false ideology that thought that the law we have now is somehow fair. It’s not fair.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to a moment with you, Michael Smith, and Michael Ratner. This was July [20th] in Washington, D.C., at the reopening of the Cuban Embassy after it was closed for more than five decades. Michael was drenched in sweat. It was boiling hot. But it was one of the happiest times I had ever seen Michael Ratner, as he talked about the significance of this historic day.

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, Amy, let’s just say, other than the birth of my children, this is perhaps one of the most exciting days of my life. I mean, I’ve been working on Cuba since the early ’70s, if not before. I worked on the Venceremos Brigade. I went on brigades. I did construction. And to see that this can actually happen in a country that decided early on that, unlike most countries in the world, it was going to level the playing field for everyone—no more rich, no more poor, everyone the same, education for everyone, schooling for everyone, housing if they could—and to see the relentless United States go against it, from the Bay of Pigs to utter subversion on and on, and to see Cuba emerge victorious—and when I say that, this is not a defeated country. This is a country—if you heard the foreign minister today, what he spoke of was the history of U.S. imperialism against Cuba, from the intervention in the Spanish-American War to the Platt Amendment, which made U.S. a permanent part of the Cuban government, to the taking of Guantánamo, to the failure to recognize it in 1959, to the cutting off of relations in 1961. This is a major, major victory for the Cuban people, and that should be understood. We are standing at a moment that I never expected to see in our history.

AMY GOODMAN: Bruno Rodríguez, the foreign minister of Cuba, gave a rousing speech inside the embassy. Talk about what he said still needs to be accomplished. He wasn’t exactly celebrating a total victory today.

MICHAEL SMITH: No, because things still aren’t normal.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Smith.

MICHAEL SMITH: The United States is still spending $30 million a year trying to subvert the Cuban government. They still illegally are holding Guantánamo. And they still have—and this is the most important thing, because it’s costing Cuban people $1.1 trillion in funds to develop their country—they still have the blockade. So, unless those three things are changed, you’re not going to have a normal situation.

MICHAEL RATNER: Let me tell you, as someone said to me here, if Obama wants to solve Guantánamo and the prisoners at Guantánamo, give it back to Cuba. There will be no prisoners left in Guantánamo. Easy way to do it, satisfy the Cubans, satisfy Guantánamo. Let it happen now.

Think about Cuba’s place in history, when we think about it for young people, not just for the fact that it leveled a society economically, gave people all the social network that we don’t have in the United States, but think about its international role. You think about apartheid in South Africa, and the key single event took place in Angola when 25,000 Cuban troops repulsed the South African military and gave it its first defeat, which was the beginning of the end of apartheid. It had an internationalism that’s just unbelievable. And I remember standing in front of—in the 100,000 people in front of a square in Havana in 1976. I was on a Venceremos Brigade. And Fidel gave a speech, and he said, “There is black blood in every Cuban vein, and we are going into Angola.” I’m telling you, I still cry over it.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Michael Ratner speaking July [20th], 2015, at the opening of the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., after it had been closed for more than 50 years. Michael Ratner died on Wednesday, died yesterday, at the age of 72 of complications related to cancer. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back remembering his life and legacy in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: Bob Dylan, “He was a Friend of Mine.” This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we remember the life and legacy of Michael Ratner, who died at the age of 72 Wednesday of cancer, of complications related to cancer. We have a roundtable of people remembering Michael’s life. He was the longtime president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. In a moment, we’ll go to Jules Lobel in Pittsburgh, who took over for Michael. Julian Assange, remembering him from inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where Michael went scores and scores of times to meet his client and friend, Julian Assange, who has been holed up there, granted political asylum by Ecuador but afraid if he steps foot outside, he’ll be arrested and ultimately extradited to the United States. Michael Smith is with us, longtime friend, colleague and co-author of Who Killed Che?, and Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, who wrote The Pinochet Papers with Michael Ratner. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to bring in Jules Lobel from Pittsburgh. Jules, you replaced Michael as the head of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Could you talk about his impact on social activism and the law, and his model of lawyering?

JULES LOBEL: Yeah. Michael was a role model and inspiration for many lawyers and activists around the world, including myself. I never would have been involved with the center, and I never would have had the career that I did, if it wasn’t for Michael, who got me involved, urged me to stay involved, and gave me the model of lawyering that I subsequently used.

His model, which I think is used by many people now, but which he pioneered in many respects, is threefold. One is, he never backed down from a fight against oppression, against injustice, no matter how difficult the odds, no matter how hopeless the case seemed to be, no matter how much there was a lack of precedent. He took cases that nobody else would take, for clients that nobody else would represent, you know, whether it was the work in Central America in the '80s where nobody else would take these cases or the war powers cases or the Haitian cases that Reed talked about or the Guantánamo cases. He stood alone in many cases. You know, now you talk about 600 Guantánamo lawyers. When Michael first said to the center, “We have to take this case,” he was standing alone, and the center was standing alone. There weren't 600 lawyers behind him. But he was willing to do that because he was unflinching in the face of oppression, and unfearful.

I remember in the war powers case when President Bush, the first President Bush, went to war against Iraq. Ron Dellums and 45 congressmen sued. And Ron Dellums told me, “We called the center, and we called Michael, because we knew you guys would do it. We knew that you guys were willing to take on the Bush administration, and we didn’t know if anybody else was going to do it.” And that’s why he called us.

But secondly, Michael was brilliant in combining legal advocacy and political advocacy. You know, the clip that you had from Beth Stevens, where they brought this case against Gramajo, the former defense minister in El Salvador, and brilliantly—

AMY GOODMAN: Guatemala.

JULES LOBEL: In Guatemala, I’m sorry—and brilliantly sued him by filing the subpoena and the summons while he was graduating from Harvard. Irrespective of what happened legally with the case, Gramajo was finished, because that was the news, front-page news, throughout Guatemala. And when he filed the Guantánamo case, he didn’t have a prayer—he didn’t think he had a prayer of winning, but he was going to do this to, as Susan Anthony said a hundred years ago, keep up the drumbeat of agitation, of political education and agitation against what he thought was an oppressive U.S. policy, and which we now all know is an oppressive U.S. policy. So he—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Jules, I wanted—

JULES LOBEL: He was brilliant in combining political activism and legal activism.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about his and the center’s pioneering work in using this obscure Alien Tort Act to go after international criminals.

JULES LOBEL: Yeah, Peter Weiss and Rhonda Copelon at the center pioneered this. Up until 20, 30 years ago, there had been no suits against foreign dictators, foreign human rights abuses in U.S. courts. U.S. courts said they didn’t have jurisdiction. The center, again, without any precedent, stood alone and said, “We’re going to—we’re going to sue human rights abuses wherever they are in the world.” Michael took that up and sued Gramajo, sued dictators around the world. And now there’s a whole—hundreds of cases, following the lead of Michael and the center, in using international law and using international human rights in U.S. courts.

I just wanted to say one other thing about Michael on this, particularly in international law. He was—he loved people all around the globe. He represented them, met with them, shared their misery, shared their suffering. And one of the things he taught me is to—is to really be with the people, to really go out and meet people, to be compassionate, to be empathetic. And that’s why, I bet you, people all around the globe now are mourning the death of Michael. When I was in Cuba six months ago or so, I met with the foreign—the former foreign minister of Cuba, and the first question he asked me over dinner was: “How’s Michael doing?” Because he knew Michael cared about Cuba and the people in Cuba, and he cared about Michael. It was those kind of relationships that Michael built—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to—

JULES LOBEL: —that made him such a remarkable person.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to 2006, when Michael Ratner and the Center for Constitutional Rights were awarded the LennonOno Grant for Peace. This was in Iceland. It was filmed by Karen Ranucci, journalist and wife of Michael Ratner. Michael was introduced by Yoko Ono.

YOKO ONO: As you are well aware, all of us are now living in darkness, of fear and confusion in this polluted world, which we ourselves created. But we really don’t have to live in such dreams of darkness. It is up to us to switch the channel and walk away from it, and, together, arrive into the future which is already in our hands.

Two important powers we possess will enable us to accomplish this: One is the power of healing, and the other is the power of protective law, which allows us to enjoy individual freedom and collective health.

The two recipients of this year’s LennonOno Grant for Peace—Doctors Without Borders, Médecins Sans Frontières, and Center for Constitutional Rights—are working on the very thing we need: to restore the balance of this planet we love and cherish.

MICHAEL RATNER: Thank you, Yoko. It’s an incredible honor for me, really, as the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, to receive this honor. It has special significance for us. And, of course, a lot of people have said to me, “Michael, what are you guys going to do with the money?” And I sort of don’t want to get Yoko into more trouble than she already is, but one of the things we’ll be doing is continuing to represent some 500 men that are in cages at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

And the other thing, which some of you may be aware of, is that the United States—or, President Bush recently pardoned himself and all high-level U.S. officials for war crimes. And that pardon may be operative in the United States, but it’s not operative in the rest of the the world. And so, one thing we’re going to do is make this world uncomfortable for some of our officials who engaged in war crimes and torture.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Michael Ratner in 2006 in Iceland as he was awarded by Yoko Ono the LennonOno Grant for Peace. We only have a minute. Your remembrance, your fond remembrances, Reed Brody?

REED BRODY: You know, Michael and his wonderful wife Karen were at the center also of a huge progressive community here in New York. Their children, Jake, an activist with the Immokalee Workers, Ana, a performance artist. Each year, July—the only July 4th softball game in which the Zapatistas played against the ecosocialists, and everybody ended by singing “The Internationale.” You know, this was a—they were the center of a community here.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Smith?

MICHAEL SMITH: I took a singing class, Anyone Can Sing, with Jake and Ana and Elena, Michael’s children. And we put him on FaceTime, and we sang “The Internationale.” And Michael was in a Barcalounger in his living room. And we sang, “Arise, ye prisoners of starvation! Arise, ye wretched of the earth!” and so on. And Michael put up his fist and sang it in French.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with a clip from a video produced by the Ratner family to mark Michael’s 60th birthday. Many of his friends were asked to briefly describe him.

ALBERT RATNER: Michael is unfaltering.

BETH STEVENS: Tenacious.

RON RATNER: Effervescent.

LARRY SINGERMAN: A very loyal friend.

JANE GOULD FRANKEL: Compassionate.

RICHARD MILLER: Very decent.

JEAN JEAN PIERRE: He’s relentless. He’s fearless.

BILL SCHAAP: Generous.

RUTH HIRSHFIELD: Super kind and warm.

RICHARD LEVY: It’s got to be some kind of tremendous optimism to keep going at the pace that he goes.

SUSAN SARANDON: I’m shocked to hear he’s this old. I thought he was about 22 myself.

AMY GOODMAN: Friends and family remembering Michael Ratner. He died on Wednesday at the age of 72 of complications related to cancer. If you have memories or stories you would like to share, you can go to MichaelRatnerPresente at, and we’ll post that online. That does it for our show. Thanks so much to Julian Assange, to Jules Lobel, to Michael Smith and to Reed Brody.

I’ll be speaking tonight at Barnes & Noble at Union Square at 7:00.

We have job openings for internships and fellows at democracynoworg.

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RIP Michael Ratner, Radical Attorney & Human Rights Crusader

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