The trailblazing human rights attorney Michael Ratner has died at the age of 72. For over four decades, he defended, investigated and spoke up for victims of human rights abuses across the world. In this web-only interview, Reed Brody and Michael Smith pay tribute to their close friend.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guests, as we continue our remembrance of Michael Ratner, are his both dear friends, his colleagues and his co-authors, Michael Smith and Reed Brody. Michael Smith co-authored the book Who Killed Che?: How the CIA Got Away with Murder. He is an attorney and board member of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which Michael Ratner was president of for so many years. Also with us, Reed Brody, who is with Human Rights Watch, an attorney there, who wrote The Pinochet Papers with Michael Ratner, as well. Michael Ratner died this week, died on Wendesday, of complications related to cancer. He was 72 years old.
Michael Smith, I wanted to go back in time. And, Juan, this involves you, as well, going back to the 1960s. Describe the young Michael Ratner. What shaped him, and, ultimately, both Juan and Michael’s involvement in the Columbia student strike?
MICHAEL SMITH: You know, Michael came from a Polish Jewish family, grew up in Cleveland. His father was a wonderful, charitable man. And in the Jewish tradition, the highest form of charity is anonymous charity. And Harry Ratner was known for helping people and not letting anybody know what he was doing. And I think Michael inherited that kind of humane instinct. Michael, Michael’s brother Bruce and sister Ellen, they’re all like that. And by the time he got to college, you know, things were cooking. And he was at Brandeis. Herbert Marcuse, the radical scholar, was there. Angela Davis was a student with Michael. The civil rights movement was the initial thing that affected Michael, struggle for black rights, and then the war in Vietnam. And Michael quickly came to understand that the right side of the war in Vietnam was to support the Vietnamese and oppose this government. And, well, you know, Juan, because you were part of that, too. So, it was the black struggle and the solidarity with Vietnam that were the initial impulses with Michael.
And then, of course, when he got out of law school, he could have gone to work anywhere. Michael, he’ll never tell you this, because he was too self-effacing, but Michael finished first in his class at an Ivy League law school. He could have had a job anywhere. He could have worked some fancy white shoe firm. He could have worked for the government. He could have done anything. And what did he do? He went and hung up a shingle with Margaret Ratner Kunstler, and they did criminal defense law and movement law for the first two years. Then he clerked for Constance Baker Motley, the first woman black judge in the country.
And then he went on and got a job with the Center for Constitutional Rights. His first assignment, the first week that he took the job, was they sent him up to Attica. And, you know, there had been this huge prison rebellion. Rockefeller wanted to be president, so he didn’t want any kind of—to be seen soft on these prisoners. So he ordered the execution of 43 prisoners, were murdered. And Michael went up there to take statements from the survivors to try to figure out what the center would do in that situation.
And he stayed with the center from '71 until he was president emeritus of the CCR yesterday, when he passed away. So he was with the center for over 40-some years, and really was the second generation at the center. The center was founded by Bill Kunstler, Arthur Kinoy and Morty Stavis. They volunteered. There was no budget. I mean, you know, it was just the three of them. And now it's a major human rights organization. And Michael saw that transition and trained those people in the second generation. It’s now under the leadership of Katherine Franke and Vince Warren and Baher Azmy. And it’s as radical as ever. It’s just bigger and stronger and well known and popular. And it was Michael’s legacy to us that he oversaw and shaped that.
AMY GOODMAN: The Columbia student strike?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, well, Michael was a law student in—during the strike, as there were many radical law students. Gus Reichbach, another wonderful activist lawyer, who passed away a few years ago, was—eventually became a judge—was one of his closest friends there at the law school, and they became increasingly radicalized during the strike, as I was, against the Vietnam War and against university racism. And, in fact, I think I may have been one of Michael’s earliest clients. You know, I think he was still—he was still in law school in 1969, when I was arrested for one of my—the only time I was arrested for a nonprotest event. It was a marijuana bust of several students. And—
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, maybe that was a protest of sorts.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we were—four of us were arrested by the police one evening from a party. And we said, “What do we do now?” And one of the students said, “Oh, Michael. Let’s talk to Michael. Maybe he can help us out.” And somehow—I don’t know how it worked—Michael got us all—got the case dismissed for illegal search and seizure. And so, I’ve known him since then, since 1969. And he’s always been a person representing and fighting for the underdog.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Constance Baker Motley? He actually clerked for her. Is that right, Michael Smith?
MICHAEL SMITH: Yeah. She really admired him and was grateful for his good work.
AMY GOODMAN: She was the first African-American woman judge.
MICHAEL SMITH: And he—because he was so studious and well trained and hard-working, the kind of memos that he produced for her, in her own words, were never met, for any clerk she had after that. Michael stood out as the most intelligent and productive.
AMY GOODMAN: First in his class at Columbia Law School.
MICHAEL SMITH: Yeah. Well, that’s now public knowledge, but I don’t think people even—
REED BRODY: I didn’t even know.
MICHAEL SMITH: Nobody—nobody knew that. You know, he would never tell you that, ever. But he was amazing. He was very disciplined. Michael worked all the time. Even after he got out of the hospital after his surgery for brain cancer, he had an uncompleted autobiography to work on. And it wasn’t easy for him. He had had radiation to his brain. He had a surgery. He had this really debilitating medicine that he had to take. But he dragged himself into his office, and he worked every day for an hour to complete that autobiography. And he almost completed it.
AMY GOODMAN: Reed?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Reed?
REED BRODY: You know, I taught with Michael for five years at Columbia Law School. And I actually didn’t know until yesterday, when Bruce told me, that he was number one in his class, because what people—we taught a class for five years basically on how to—how to get the bad guys. Michael was the expert on how to get the bad guys in the U.S., and I was theoretically the expert on how to get the bad guys outside of the U.S. And what people loved about the class was not, you know, the academic background that we brought to it, but people loved watching Michael Ratner talk about how he—how he did it.
And so many people saw Michael as a role model. I mean, I—Michael was my role model, my mentor. He was my hero. I think, you know, everything I did my entire life, I always thought, you know, “What would Michael—what would Michael think about this?” I mean, we had different choices, we had different views on certain things, but it was always in my mind. And so many people looked at Michael—his students, his children, his—so many people’s children looked at Michael as a role model, because he was—as people said on the show, he was not only a model lawyer, but he was a model human being. He was generous. He was modest. He put the clients first. He put the causes first. He was modest about what the law and what his role was. He lived the life, I think, that he wanted people to live. And people gravitated towards him because of his generosity.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, I just saw a note from Harold Koh, who is the Sterling professor of international law at Yale Law School. They taught together at Yale. But when Harold Koh moved into the State Department, they had vast disagreements. I mean vast.
REED BRODY: Very vast.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Reed, maybe you can explain what those disagreements were, because Harold Koh just wrote that “Michael was one of the greatest people I ever knew. I owe him so much.”
REED BRODY: You know, Michael and—and let me say that Harold Koh is the most intelligent person I know. I mean, Harold Koh is—was a professor, was the dean of Yale Law School, worked with Michael particularly on getting the HIV-positive Haitians out of Guantánamo. Harold went into the State Department and—you know, and provided the rationale for the use of drones, in particular, and really caused—I mean, it was sad to see, because I look up to Harold, and I still look up to Harold. But this was a very serious issue for many of us, the use of targeted killings by the U.S. administration. But, you know, you can’t—no matter what side of the issue you are on, you cannot look at Michael Ratner other than as a principled advocate and as a great human being.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of Harold Koh, I wanted to go to a clip, because he’s within this. And this is still part of the birthday tribute to Michael on his 60th birthday, and he’s talking about his work in Haiti.
PAUL SONN: The first Bush administration was sending back to Haiti refugees fleeing from terrible conditions there.
REPORTER: The Coast Guard had orders to rescue the Haitians. Those with credible stories of political persecution were taken to a U.S. military base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
JEAN JEAN PIERRE: It was not just another refugee camp. There were Haitians who were tested HIV-positive.
ANNIE HESS: There were orphaned kids and kids who were sick and kids with parents who were sick. And we were trying to get them into this country.
MICHAEL WISHNIE: Paul Sonn and Kurt Petersen dragged me out of Naples one night and said, “We’ve got to go find this guy Michael Ratner and Harold Koh. They’ve got this amazing case. They need help.”
HAROLD KOH: One of the first things that the Bush administration did was they came back and they filed a motion against us for something called Rule 11, which is to subject us, the lawyers personally, for financial penalties for filing a frivolous lawsuit.
PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: As long as the laws are in the book, I will not, because I’ve sworn to uphold the Constitution, open the doors to economic refugees all over the world.
HAROLD KOH: And when I received the motion, I was shattered. And I called Michael, and Michael said, “Harold, every case I’ve ever filed have been Rule 11ed.”
PAUL SONN: This sort of ragtag group of people sort of sleeping day and night in, you know, conference rooms, you know, putting together crazy lawsuits to—wake up judges in the middle of the night to file.
RAY BRESCIA: Michael, you know, really went toe to toe with all of the students that were half his age. And, you know, he had a family. He had other cases. And yet he worked the same amount of hours as all of us.
LIZZIE RATNER: He was utterly consumed by the case and devastated by what was being done to the refugees in Guantánamo.
SUSAN SARANDON: Michael had, you know, brought me up to speed on what was happening there. And we’d had a press conference. I was reading letters that he provided from, you know, a woman that was locked up and on the hunger fast. And we went on the Academy Awards.
HAROLD KOH: The students and I, because it was our first big case, we really took everything personally. And when we’d go into the courtroom with the other lawyers from the other side, we wouldn’t talk to them. We’d stare and glare at them. We hated them.
MICHAEL WISHNIE: Michael developed a relationship with Paul Cappuccio, who was a very senior Department of Justice official, the senior lawyer who was a special assistant to the attorney general, and an extraordinarily conservative young gun in the Bush I administration.
HAROLD KOH: Michael was going over and cracking jokes and laughing and slapping him on the back. You know, we couldn’t believe it. You know, this is dancing with the devil. But Michael would come back, and he’d have more information about what was going on.
MICHAEL WISHNIE: Day after day in the fall of ’92, the phone would ring from the highest reaches of the Department of Justice, and the most conservative lawyer would get on the phone and strike up this bantering relationship with Michael, where they would joke and josh. And at the end of the conversation, Michael had somehow persuaded him to let three more people free from Guantánamo.
HAROLD KOH: We watched this big airplane, military aircraft, land. And the doors opened, and instead of soldiers walking in, you know, refugees came streaming out. And they were crying and happy, and they came running over to us.
MICHAEL WISHNIE: The human compassion that he brings, the ability to find a common bond with Paul Cappuccio, in the midst of all the battles, that delivers freedom for his clients. And that, to me, sets him apart even from some of the most accomplished civil rights lawyers. It’s not just intellectual for Michael. It’s very personal.
AMY GOODMAN: That, a clip from a tribute film to Michael. And I wanted to go to one more. In April of 1994, in the midst of the Haitian refugee crisis, Michael Ratner and the Center for Constitutional Rights visited what were supposed to be temporary camps in the Bahamas to house asylum seekers.
MICHAEL RATNER: I want to tell you something. What’s happening here, it’s going into a permanent refugee camp.
UNIDENTIFIED: It’s been getting bigger. They’re bulldozing over there.
MICHAEL RATNER: These are no longer—well, like a lot of things going on. There’s piping everywhere. They’re putting in real bathrooms. They don’t use the outhouses anymore. There’s real bathrooms, real showers, real medical clinic, a real kitchen, and piping going underground. They don’t do that for temporary refugee camps. It means they’re going to be processing people through this camp, back to Haiti mostly, and then, as they get more and more refugees, just putting them into this camp and continuing the processing. That’s at least one guess. You know, I don’t know. But I’ve never seen—in Guantánamo, in a year and a half, they were using outhouses, for a year and a half. So the fact they’ve been three weeks in the Bahamas and putting in running water means that there’s something completely fishy. People don’t do that—people don’t do that out of the goodness of their heart for refugees. So there’s something—there’s something going on.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Michael Ratner in 1994, a recording from Crowing Rooster Productions. Just two weeks after this visit, the Haitian political refugees in that clip were forcibly repatriated to Haiti and their oppressors by the Bahamian government with the complicity of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. We’re talking about the life and legacy of Michael Ratner, who died at the age of 72 of cancer, complications related to cancer. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. And our guests are his close colleagues, co-authors and friends, Michael Smith and Reed Brody.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Reed, I wanted to ask you about one of the—I guess, Michael’s most famous recent cases: his attempt to bring Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defense, to justice for his war crimes.
REED BRODY: Sure. Well, as the center, Human Rights Watch and many others have said, U.S. officials under the Bush administration have a case to answer for torture, for the waterboarding, for the use of secret prisons, for rendition to torture. Michael wrote a book called Donald Rumsfeld: Trial by Book [The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: A Prosecution by Book]. But he also, together with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, of which he was the founder, helped to file lawsuits abroad, using the Pinochet principle, the principle of universal jurisdiction. And Michael and Wolfgang Kaleck from the ECCHR and others filed a case in Germany, they filed a case in France—and not just against Donald Rumsfeld, but there was a case filed also against George Bush. Unfortunately, you know, political realities being what they are, in country after country, these cases were dismissed on patently political grounds. There are some cases actually that are still alive. I was called to—I was cited as a witness for a case in Spain that was, of course, being brought before Judge Garzón, and Judge Garzón is not there anymore. But, you know, Michael believed in the rule of law. And—
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Michael talking about this. When he went to Germany to—in 2006 to file those cases against the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, I asked him about the case, when he was in Germany.
MICHAEL RATNER: One of the shocking things really so far about the coverage of Rumsfeld’s resignation, there’s not a word in any of it about torture. And here, Rumsfeld is one of the architects of the torture program of the United States. I mean, we have those sheets of paper that went to Guantánamo that talk about using dogs and stripping people and hooding people. We have one of our clients, al-Qahtani, who was in Guantánamo. Rumsfeld essentially supervised that entire interrogation, one of the worst interrogations that happened at Guantánamo. He actually authorized a rendition, a fake rendition of al-Qahtani, where they flew him—put a—blindfolded him, sedated him, put him on an airplane and flew him back to Guantánamo, so he thought he would be in some torture country. So here you have Rumsfeld, one of the architects, not a word about it.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you know that he personally supervised it?
MICHAEL RATNER: There’s actually documents out there, that there’s part of the log that comes out. The log was published of his interrogation. And then there’s a report called the Schmidt Report, which was an internal investigation, in which there are statements in there about Rumsfeld being directly involved in the interrogation of al-Qahtani. So this guy has committed—without any question, this guy has committed war crimes, violations of the Geneva Conventions.
Now, what do we do now? Well, we went to Germany before. Germany dismissed the earlier case on Rumsfeld, partly for political reasons, obviously. Rumsfeld said, “I’m not going back to Germany as long as this case is pending in Germany.” He had to go to the Munich Security Conference. They dismissed the case two days before. What they said when they dismissed it, what they said was, we think the United States is still looking into going up the chain of command, essentially, and looking into what the conduct of our officials are.
In fact, now, two years later, look where we are. One, he has resigned, so any kind of immunity he might have as a vice president [sic] from prosecution is out the window. Secondly, of course, as, you know, a little gift package to these guys, you know, our Congress, with the president, has now given immunity to U.S. officials for war crimes. They basically said you can’t be prosecuted for war crimes. That’s in the Military Commission Act. Now, that immunity, like the immunities in Argentina and Chile during the dirty wars, does not apply overseas.
So, now you have Germany sitting there with—there’s no longer an argument the U.S. can possibly prosecute him, because within the U.S., he’s out. So you have Germany sitting there with a former vice president—with a former secretary of defense, and basically in an immunity situation in the United States. So the chances in Germany have been raised tremendously, I think, and the stakes for Rumsfeld, not only in Germany, but anywhere that guy travels, he is going to be like the Henry Kissinger of the next period.
AMY GOODMAN: So that was Michael Ratner in 2006, who headed the Center for Constitutional Rights for so many years. And I wanted to end this part of our conversation by asking where Michael felt he could go with these cases. Did Donald Rumsfeld—is he afraid of traveling to other places? Is he afraid of being picked up? Did he believe that he could always win, Michael Ratner, when he brought these cases, Reed?
REED BRODY: No. I think Michael brought cases because they were right. And, you know, when I—when Pinochet—I used to—I’ve been so used to working with Michael on suits to stop the war and things that never succeeded, that when we actually won the case against Pinochet, it was this effervescence. I mean, you know, you’re used to being right and losing. And there, you know, we won. But, in fact, the world has become a smaller place for U.S. torturers. George Bush canceled a trip to Switzerland after a lawsuit was filed against him there. I think that, you know—I mean, even Henry Kissinger. Henry Kissinger does not travel to many countries. And I think we are seeing that Europe—in particular, European countries that care about the rule of law don’t want to be faced with the choice of either violating their obligations or arresting people like Kissinger or Donald Rumsfeld.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Michael Smith, your last thoughts?
MICHAEL SMITH: Yeah, well, you know, ultimately, Michael believed in the movement. And I have a quote for you: “The battle for a just society will not be won in the courtroom. And all of us have an obligation to resist, to resist illegitimate authority.”
AMY GOODMAN: And this final quote from David Cole on the Guantánamo case, which is like a number of these cases. David said, “When I asked him,” talking about Michael—”When I asked him several years later what he thought his chances were in filing that suit, he answered: 'None whatsoever. We filed 100 percent on principle.' That could be his epitaph,” said David.
Thanks so much. It’s hard to think of Michael gone. Yes, he lost his battle with cancer, but his struggle for justice is the legacy he leaves that will be carried on by so many he inspired.
MICHAEL SMITH: Well, thank you, Amy. I just wanted to say there’s no joy the world can give like what it takes away.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Smith and Reed Brody, we’ll go out there on July 4th and play ball, and Juan. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.