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Edward Snowden’s Lawyer Wolfgang Kaleck on the Global Fight for Human Rights

Web ExclusiveJanuary 24, 2019
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Web-only conversation with Wolfgang Kaleck, founder of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. Kaleck is a human rights attorney who for decades has been at the forefront of the legal fight to hold powerful actors and governments around the world accountable for human rights abuses. His new book, titled “Law Versus Power: Our Global Fight for Human Rights,” documents his remarkable career, including his time as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s lawyer in Europe.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Part 2 of our interview with Wolfgang Kaleck, a human rights attorney who for decades has been at the forefront of the legal fight to hold powerful actors and governments around the world accountable for human rights abuses. He documents his remarkable career in the new book Law Versus Power: Our Global Fight for Human Rights. The book’s foreword was written by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, whom Kaleck represents in Europe. Edward Snowden writes, quote, “I came to appreciate that Wolfgang combines a lawyer’s attention to detail, a radical’s view of power, and an activist’s vision for a better world. … [W]hen the history of our era is written not by the torturers and their apologists, but by those who never gave up on the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—Wolfgang Kaleck will be one of the primary authors,” Snowden writes.

Wolfgang Kaleck is the general secretary of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights—his new book is—Law Versus Power: Our Global Fight for Human Rights—joining us now in our New York studio, where he’s just come from Berlin.

Thank you very much for continuing with us in Part 2 of this discussion. So let’s start off with the man who introduces you in your book, Edward Snowden, your client. You represent him in Europe. Talk about what’s happening with Ed Snowden right now, the world-renowned whistleblower who is now in political asylum in Russia, though, of course, would like to be back in the United States. And for our viewers, if you would just refresh our memory about what Snowden did and his significance?

WOLFGANG KALECK: There are a lot of stories that have to be told about Edward Snowden. Obviously, he was the one who confirmed all the warnings of many, many experts in the field about mass surveillance. So, you know, since his revelations, we lost somehow our innocence, not only about the mass surveillance carried out by the secret services all over the world, not only by the NSA—we have to remind that—but also the collection and processing of data by the powerful corporations, such as Facebook and all the others. And so, that’s the one thing. And I think it will be—at some point, it will be remembered as a really historical watershed, summer 2013, before and after.

So, the second thing is, in a time, you know, when many people are frustrated about what’s going on in the world—you know, the rise of the far right, the economic crisis everywhere—he sets an example for courage and, you know, that you can achieve something when you risk something, whereas many of us are sitting there in our offices, in cafes and restaurants, and debating and not really risking something. What did he risk? Basically, the first moment when he revealed not only the facts, but also identified himself, he risked basically his life and his existence. And he had to flee the U.S., went to Hong Kong, and then the only country which was willing to host him was Russia. By the time he looked for other places to go and to stay—in Europe, in Latin America—but nobody was really willing to give him a safe stay.

And this is how we then come in. He’s represented in the U.S. by the ACLU. Ben Wizner is the leading lawyer. But in Europe, there was a lot of interest in his revelations, so he participated in an inquiry commission at the European Parliament and at the Council of Europe. And we thought that the Europeans, who consider themselves the champions of human rights and democracy, at some point really, really acknowledge what he did and also declare his prosecution in the U.S. as against all standards of criminal law and human rights, because what he’s facing in the U.S. is a life-long sentence. He can get a 30-year prison term for each file he copied and made public. And he could be forced to serve the sentence in a maximum-security prison in total isolation, under this, you know, special statute, special administration measure, SAM. And that is obviously against any standard.

And so, it’s a very big disappointment that the European governments acted once again in complete bigotry. It’s, you know, the whistleblower of my enemy is my friend, but my own whistleblower is my enemy. And that is, you know, criminalizing whistleblowers in the way they do it. It’s, from many points of view, very, very stupid. And that’s something we try to—we tried and are still trying to challenge, because this is a man who deserves all our solidarity.

AMY GOODMAN: And just specifically, to refresh everyone’s memory, Edward Snowden is the man who exposed the secrets of the National Security Agency, the massive intelligence agency that is many times larger than the CIA, and its ability to spy on Americans, on foreign governments, people around the world. This was in 2013, revealing numerous global surveillance programs, not only run by the NSA but the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the cooperation of telecommunications companies and European governments. So, he was taking on the world, in a sense. He goes to Hong Kong. He reveals this information to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, their reporting leading to Pulitzer Prizes. And as he then tries to take refuge, perhaps in a Latin American country, he loses his passport. It’s revoked, from the United States. And so, when he was traveling, in transit, he is not able to leave Russia, in transit, and he is ultimately granted political asylum there, where he has remained for—what? Close to six years right now.

WOLFGANG KALECK: Close to six years. In summer, it’s going to be six years, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, there he is. Are there secret negotiations going on with the U.S. government for him to come home, or is there just no chance at this point?

WOLFGANG KALECK: There is no chance at this point. But he’s a young man, and we’re hoping for some more, you know, human rights and democracy-orientated U.S. governments in the future. So he has many, many more chances, and at some point—I mean, public opinion is pretty much in favor of him. I mean, in my country, in Germany, he’s a hero. He’s considered as a hero. And in many European countries, as well. Many young people admire him. And that is something that at some point the politicians will—we have to convince them, in some point, to say, “OK, close the chapter.” And—

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about how he testifies in other countries, though he doesn’t leave his political asylum in Russia at this moment. Who has called on him to testify? For example, in Germany and in other countries.

WOLFGANG KALECK: Yeah. I mean, first of all, we appreciated that very much European institutions, such as the assembly—the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, took a stand on mass surveillance and protection of whistleblowers. And they asked him for—as as an expert. So, he is not just, I mean—

AMY GOODMAN: As an expert on?

WOLFGANG KALECK: On whistleblowing and mass surveillance. So, he’s not just regarded as, let’s say, a kind of technical nerd engineer guy who leaks some information, and then, you know, whatever. No, he’s someone who can explain what what goes on. And that is also very important to acknowledge, that he has not just leaked some data, but he pointed to a problem, and that affects—this problem affects the whole world. Because, let us make this very clear, the NSA and the British secret service, GCHQ, they might have the highest standard of technique of surveillance, but the others would—you know, everybody would do it, including the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Indian. You know, they would do it. And so, this is not about the NSA. And, you know, that is also something we have to remind the people in Europe, who easily point to the U.S. and say, you know, “That’s only the U.S.” No, no, no, it’s everybody. And so, it’s about democracy, now and in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve come to the United States, and you see also, from your perch in Berlin, what is happening with President Trump. But can you talk about the far-right shift that’s happening in Europe? And start with your own country. Start with Germany.

WOLFGANG KALECK: Yeah, it’s a very tragic development, which has to do with several factors—amongst others, the economic crisis in Europe. I mean, everybody is now realizing what the impact of the economic globalization is—you know, outsourcing work and to places where work is—where workforce is very cheap, and that leads to unemployment in all our countries, and that leads also to a certain insecurity, economic and social insecurity, in all our countries. And then we have, you know, these demagogues all over Europe who try to instrumentalize that.

And so, I would blame governments like the German government under Chancellor Merkel, who enjoys a very good reputation. I would blame them for not having developed a social vision—social and democratic vision for Europe in the last decade. It was a lost decade. And then, of course, when it became obvious that the migration management system of Europe failed, she allowed the people to enter Germany, but Germany was also the most responsible state for the so-called Dublin system, the migration management system, which gave the responsibility of protecting European borders to the European border states. And not only that, but if they were not able to permit—to prohibit people from coming in, when the people entered the territory, these were the states where the asylum claims had to be dealt with. And so, the central Western European powers—France, the U.K., Germany—would lean back and would say, “OK, Spain, Italy, Greece, you do the dirty job for us.” And that system failed, ultimately, in summer 2015. Many refugees—political refugees from Syria, above all—came to Germany. And that was then instrumentalized by the right-wingers all over Europe.

And yeah, that is something we’re still struggling on. Some of the right-wingers are, unfortunately, in power, in Poland and Hungary. And some of them, yeah, are struggling for power, like in Germany, like in France, where the situation can change. But one has also to say that this is against the frustration of many people. There were powerful demonstrations, for example, in Germany. There is a lot of resistance all over Europe, a lot of solidarity with the migrants. So, it’s an open—it’s a politically open situation. It looks bad when you look at the institutions and at the governments, but it looks a little bit more hopeful when you see, you know, all the local and regional initiatives, yeah, of resistance and of solidarity.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about some of the cases that you have taken on. And if you can also talk about why you feel this is important? Sometimes the cases you look at are decades old, and yet you are right there. Let’s talk about Argentina for a moment. You took on both government crimes during the Dirty War, and you took on corporate crimes, like companies like Mercedes-Benz.

WOLFGANG KALECK: Yeah. First of all, there are many people around the world who are saying we don’t have to look back, we have to look forward. It was President Obama. But now it’s President AMLO in Mexico, again, who calls for national reconciliation. And I think these people neglect the importance of—you know, that a society which has suffered a dictatorial past has to challenge that, because torture is not only an individual problem or individual—it’s not a fact which occurred in the past, but it has a serious impact on the torture survivor, his family, his social environment, but also the whole society. You know, you cannot build up a democracy and a human rights-orientated society on the corpses of the tortured and the assassinated.

So, that is, I think, a very important lesson we can learn from—above all, from Chile and from Argentina. And this is why the Argentinean and the Chilean human rights movement are insisting that this should be on the agenda, on the agenda of their national courts, and if they are not willing and able to deal with that, on international courts. And that’s where we come in. And this is also—you know, this is also a moment to remind that 20 years—a little bit more than 20 years ago, in October 1998, General Pinochet was finally arrested. And that is—

AMY GOODMAN: General Pinochet, who was the—who took power in Chile in 1973.

WOLFGANG KALECK: Eleventh of September, 1973, the other—

AMY GOODMAN: Another September.

WOLFGANG KALECK: The other 11th of September, yeah. And yeah, and tortured and killed thousands of oppositionals, and was impune until he left Chile for a private trip to the U.K. and was then there arrested in October 1998.

And so, if you—you have to recall that also because, all of us, we are frustrated about the current situation, but there are also achievements of the human rights movement. And what happened after the Pinochet arrest was really, really impressive, because many lawyers, human rights activists all over the world said, “Let’s repeat that Pinochet experience in other countries.” And amongst them, Peter Weiss and Michael Ratner from the Center for Constitutional Rights are calling on the the investigation and prosecution of those who are responsible for the U.S. torture system. So, the claim was from Pinochet to Rumsfeld. And that’s also then important to remember that a couple of years ago it was for many, even human rights activists and lawyers, impossible to think of challenging such powerful actors as Rumsfeld. Many people were saying, “Oh, this doesn’t lead anywhere. You know, this will have no result.” And we proved that it was an important contribution to the struggle against torture.

And, of course, it also led to the broader network, which we have now, which not only focuses on state actors, those who are responsible for crimes against humanity and torture, but also targets of corporations who are involved in human rights violations. And so, this is not only a story about brave human rights lawyers, individuals in Madrid, in London, in Berlin or in New York. This is a story of a network of young lawyers completely dedicated to human rights, in India, in the Philippines, in Congo, in Colombia. Everywhere you travel, you will find now these kind of lawyers. And that is also an important dimension of our work, and that is also an important message. You know, like we are debating, “Should we, or should we not?” No, we have to. We have to, because all these people I just mentioned deserve our solidarity.

AMY GOODMAN: So, especially for young people who are not aware of what happened in Argentina, talk about the mothers of the disappeared, the groups that fought to make clear what was happening in Argentina, the tens of thousands of people who were killed or disappeared. Talk about the government accountability, the corporate accountability, like Mercedes-Benz, and what you and other human rights lawyers did about this.

WOLFGANG KALECK: Yeah. After March 1976, the military took the power in Argentina and immediately started to arrest waves and waves of especially young people who were in the opposition, students, journalists, but, above all, also workers, trade unionists. The main group within the 30,000 disappeared in the seven years of dictatorship in Argentina were trade unionists. So, it was not only—it was not only a crime, but it was also a transformation of the Argentinian society. It was a transformation to a neoliberal society. And that is very—that is very important to be remembered.

And that dictatorship in Argentina—same goes for the Chile coup—Naomi Klein, in her book, Shock Effect [Shock Doctrine], reminds us that it was about to shock and awe the workers’ movement in order to have a free way to a neoliberal society. And many corporations within Chile, Argentina, participated, but also many outside, and amongst them, the big automobile corporations such as Mercedes-Benz from Germany, but also Ford from the U.S. And, I mean, fortunately enough—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what Mercedes-Benz did.

WOLFGANG KALECK: Mercedes-Benz had a production in the province of Buenos Aires, and there was an independent trade union movement on the level of the factory. They asked for what trade unions ask for—you know, better wages and more security, work security. And more than 15 of them had been abducted, several of them tortured to death, disappeared. But one of them survived. That was my client, Héctor Ratto, who could testify about the role of one manager of Mercedes-Benz, and therefore we tried to hold Mercedes accountable in Germany, in the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: Because it’s a German company.

WOLFGANG KALECK: It’s a German company. The guy had double citizenship—Argentinian-German—so we could go to Germany. The lawyers went also to the U.S. to file a case again under the Alien Tort Claims Act. And finally, the case is now—investigation is open in Argentina. And yeah, a good example, you know, for endurance, for sustainability of the work, is that, you know, more than 30 years after all this happened, in last month, a number of old managers of Ford, of the Ford company, had been sentenced in an Argentinian court, you know? So—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about that. In Argentina, in December, two former motor Ford Motor Company executives were found guilty of aiding in the kidnapping and torture of 24 workers during Argentina’s military dictatorship. Pedro Müller, Héctor Francisco Sibilla were sentenced to 10 and 12 years in prison. They were found guilty of providing the personal information of workers to military forces, as well as allowing interrogations inside the Ford factory—the first time executives of a multinational corporation were found guilty of human rights abuses in Argentina.

WOLFGANG KALECK: Yeah. That’s an incredible, important precedent, yeah, not only for Argentina, but all over the world, because we have this situation in many countries that, you know, these companies come there and profit from authoritarian systems to make more, to—yeah, it’s easier to make more profit without strong trade unions. They profit there. And then, when people try to hold them accountable, they would say, “Oh, we’re just neutral businessmen.” That is, by the way, the same excuse the Nazi—the industrialists in the Nazi time used when they were put on trial in the Nuremberg follow-up trials. And it was declared null and invalid by the time by the judges in the Nuremberg trials. So, it’s important that we have new precedents right now.

And it’s also important because many people in the human rights movement try to frame their work as neutral and apolitical. And whereas we think it’s very important to recall the causes of these human rights violations. It was not that the generals in Chile or Argentina are, you know, cruel human beings. No, they had a political and economic project, and they were supported by the Western states and by the Western companies. And therefore these cases are also very important to warn all of us that same developments are going on right now. You know, companies are making their business all over the world, no matter what government is in power and no matter if human rights and labor rights of their workers and trade unionists are respected or not. And that is of—so, Argentina is a very important signal, as well as in the case of the Operation Condor trial. I mean—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain Operation Condor.

WOLFGANG KALECK: Operation Condor was like the CIA extraordinary rendition program, a cooperation—an international cooperation between secret services and special police forces in the late ’60s and early ’70s in Latin America, in southern Latin America. So, here we had the secret service people from all these dictatorships sitting together with the U.S.—there are photos of it, of this, of these meetings—and discussing how to chase the oppositionals across the borders.

And so, what happened was, you know, in Uruguay, the dictatorship began already in '74, so some of the Uruguayan oppositionals flew to Argentina. And when the dictators were in power there, they arrested them and tortured them, or in Argentina or brought them back when they were tortured in Uruguay. So, it's kind of the blueprint of the extraordinary rendition—you know, alliance of secret services all over the world. Where here we had political oppositionals, there we had terrorism suspects.

And the interesting thing is that in Argentina, in one very important trial, the leading generals were accountable for their actions within the framework of the Operation Condor. So, the Operation Condor was declared as an illegal action. And that is also very important, because, I mean, people tend to forget what happens under the—you know, under the label “national security,” which was, by the way, also a very familiar term in the ’70s in Latin America to cover up the crimes of the military dictators.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about using legal means, that your group does, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, to challenge, for example, unlawful killings by armed drones, for example, the role of air bases in Europe, like Ramstein in Germany, as well as in Italy? What is the role of the U.S. drone program?

WOLFGANG KALECK: The U.S. carries out targeted killings by drones. That is well known, and that is challenged in courts here in the U.S. and also elsewhere. But it’s also important to know that part of the system of these targeted killings are air bases in Europe—amongst them, air bases in Sicily and in Ramstein in Germany. And so, the U.S. says that this is not a breach against international law, but that is not the majority opinion. The majority opinion, if we are not in war, you cannot just kill people, you know, without trial, without any judicial control. And so, it is against the majority legal opinion. For example, Germany and Italy have another stand.

And so, what we ask—claim from the German and from the Italian government is that they guarantee that from German and Italian territory no unlawful targeted killings are carried out. And so, the German answer was, “Yeah, we told the U.S. that they should respect international law, and they answered they do.” Very superficial way to deal with this problem, so we went to court, and there is a pending court procedure, as well in Germany as well as in Italy. But obviously our main target should be the U.S. But in the U.S. it seems impossible to challenge these actions, so we have to circumvent that and go to European courts.

AMY GOODMAN: You write about the struggle for collective memory. Explain what you mean, Wolfgang.

WOLFGANG KALECK: OK, all this work, you know, taking up cases from the '70s, from the ’80s, in Latin America, now in Syria, is, of course, in what we are doing, not only in my organization in Berlin, but many other organizations, is a legal work. It's primarily legal work. But it’s also a contribution to collective memory. And that is something we think is extremely important, that, you know, any society which has such a past—I mean, we in Germany had a terrible past—has to challenge that somehow and have to build up something like a collective memory. And here, our lawsuits, the documentation, you know, which is the basis for all lawsuits, then the trials, the proceeding, the testimonies collected, that is a very important material and can serve as an important basis for the collective memory. But, of course, that only works if we lawyers communicate with artists, with journalists, with writers, with the rest of the society. And this is why it’s nice to have European courts taking up cases like the Pinochet case or like our Syria cases right now. But in the end of the day, it would be important that these trials are taking place in those societies affected by the crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: You keep mentioning Syria. Talk about your work documenting human rights abuses of the Assad regime—


AMY GOODMAN: —as well as, last June, German authorities issuing an arrest warrant for the head of the Syrian Air Force, that was really very much based on your work.

WOLFGANG KALECK: Yeah. We have more than a half of a million Syrian refugees coming to Germany, amongst them many political activists of the Arab Syrian Spring from 2011 on, and many of them are, yeah, survivors of torture. And so, we have a huge potential of witnesses and experts amongst the Syrian community. We have some of the most prominent Syrian lawyers coming to Germany—Anwar al-Bunni, Mazen Darwish—who, together with us, elaborated a strategy how to challenge the systematic torture, which, unfortunately, is the DNA of the Assad regime. And when I say Assad regime, father Assad and son Assad. So, some of the prisons, like the infamous Sednaya Prison, exist for decades right now.

And so, what we—happy enough, the German federal prosecutors opened investigation into this already in 2012. And then we contributed to these investigations by bringing a lot of witnesses to the prosecutor and also by delivering the original set of data of the military photographer Caesar, who photographed the corpses of many people who had been tortured to death in Syrian prisons, and not only the corpses but also some information where they were killed. So, we have the units, the military units, the prison units, where they were killed. And that is now being analyzed by German forensic experts.

And, of course, some of the procedures are then directed against those who happen to be in Germany or in Europe. So there are also some torturers who have come with the bigger group of the refugees. But for us, from Berlin, the most important thing is that those who bear the most responsibility are to be held accountable. And that is the heads of the secret services. And so, we are extremely happy that the federal prosecutor’s office and the Supreme Court released this arrest warrant against Jamil Hassan, which is, by the way, then also something—

AMY GOODMAN: And Jamil Hassan is the head of the Syrian Air Force intelligence.

WOLFGANG KALECK: The head of the Air Force secret service, yeah, and one of the most infamous, you know, torture experts in Syria. And the interesting thing is also this is then something we will point out as unprecedented. I mean, why only holding Syrian torture, you know, secret service heads accountable, and why not the heads of other secret services, like George Tenet from the U.S., like the Sri Lankans, like the Congolese, like the Colombians? So, this is also a very important symbol in the fight against torture all over the world. As the International Criminal Court is not functioning so well, as we have problems all over the world, we can deliver the messages that there are some courts in Europe willing and able to deal with this fact.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you write about success without victory, from Videla to Rumsfeld. As we wrap up, explain what you mean.

WOLFGANG KALECK: That many of us, you know, think in black and white. You know, it’s or victory or failure, and whereas the life plays in the gray zone. And the political and the legal struggle we are involved in also plays in this gray zone. So, sometimes we won’t have success immediately, but we have to acknowledge, when we come—when we move some steps forward. And that is what happened in the struggle for accountability in cases of torture and crimes against humanity. The last 20 years, so much happened, also in a positive way, that we have to remind that. Obviously, we want more. We don’t want torture in the world. So, it’s incredible what’s happening there, but still there are networks, there are activists all over the world, who resist that development and who build up something which is, yeah, I would say, given to the small resources all of us have, that’s quite important.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for being with us. Wolfgang Kaleck is the general secretary of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. He is Edward Snowden’s European lawyer. He has a new book out. Usually he’s in Berlin, Germany, but now in the United States talking about Law Versus Power: Our Global Fight for Human Rights.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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