The leadership and work that CCR has contributed over the past decade to protect human rights during the “War on Terror” is unparalleled. When Michael Ratner determined to confront U.S. policies of indefinite detention at Guantanamo in 2001 it was not a popular move. CCR was the first human rights organization to stand up for the rights of Guantanamo detainees. As the years went by CCR facilitated the participation of over 600 pro bono lawyers, some whose career paths as corporate attorneys ended with new priorities set. Their work with CCR in the Guantanamo litigation led them to become human rights lawyers. Protecting the right of habeas corpus set the legal ground work for fighting torture and the policy of extraordinary rendition. Michael Ratner acted as counsel in Rasul v. Bush and after two and a half years of litigation, CCR won the first phase of the Guantanamo cases in the United States Supreme Court. This bold challenge is typical of Michael’s work. During the 1980’s Michael Ratner became the leading crusader against U.S. military intervention abroad, torture and a defender of dissident voices at home. His work in using universal jurisdiction to hold officials accountable for war crimes has inspired a new generation of human rights activists. Litigating with CCR over a dozen anti-war cases from Central America to Bosnia to Iraq his work as an attorney in this area stands as a beacon for others. Included was the first challenge in 1981 pursuant to the War Powers Resolution of the use of troops in El Salvador, Crockett v. Reagan, and a suit against U.S. officials on behalf of Nicaraguans raped, murdered and tortured by U.S.-backed contras, Sanchez-Espinoza v. Reagan. When the National Law Journal named Michael Ratner one of the 100 most influential lawyers in the United States—he was the only human rights attorney to be included.
As an attorney, writer, speaker, educator, activist and most importantly as the President of the Center for Constitutional Rights Michael Ratner has dedicated his career not just to the law but to the struggle for justice and peace, crossing all cultural bounds. Both he and CCR have been honored from all facets of society including: the Lennon Ono Peace Grant from Yoko Ono, The Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship, The Council on American-Islamic Relations Civil Rights Award, Sant Refijie Ayisyen In Recognition For Outstanding Efforts on Behalf of Haitian Refugees, Raphael Lemkin Human Rights Award from Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, 2007 Peace Award from the Catholic Worker War Resister’s League, Iowa Center for Human Rights annual Courage of Conviction Award 2009.
His legal vision is supported by qualities of charismatic leadership that foster connections with people of diverse backgrounds and all ages. Under his stewardship, CCR has emerged as a visionary legal organization that is dedicated to bringing the norms of international law to all people and has impacted the fight for virtually every popular movement for social justice including those in Central America, Europe, Africa, Asia, North America, Australia and South America.
The Attica prison revolt began a week after Michael joined CCR in 1971. He went to Attica shortly after the killings, worked with inmates and filed his first federal lawsuit, Attica Brothers v. Rockefeller, an effort to compel prosecution of the state police involved in the murders. Throughout the 1970’s CCR led with civil rights cases. Michael worked on Clavir v. Levi a case brought against the FBI for illegal surveillance activities, and it was instrumental in revealing the extent and the danger of FBI surveillance methods, as well as setting a precedent for plaintiff’s entitlement to receive statements taken by the government in internal investigations. He worked on several Puerto Rican cases:Soto v. Romero-Barcelo was a case which brought suit to uncover FBI involvement in the killing of young pro-independence activists at Cerro Maravilla, Puerto Rico. The case led to substantial awards to plaintiffs and televised Puerto Rican Senate hearings as well as several convictions of police officers for obstruction of justice and perjury. United States v. Berkan was a criminal case that challenged the arrests of four protestors of the U.S. Navy bombing of Vieques, Puerto Rico. Goodman v. Kehl was a case defending the right of a radio station manager to refuse to handover tapes.
Michael Ratner served as legal director of CCR from 1984-1990 and it was during this period that his focus became more international. In the 1980’s Sanchez v. Reagan case, Michael Ratner was lead counsel, it challenged U.S. officials’ support for murder, rape, and other torture in Nicaragua. The plaintiffs did not win, but the idea that U.S. officials who directed and assisted the contras in injuring and killing Nicaraguans were as responsible as those who inflicted the injuries is one that resonated and led him to pursue cases into the present that hold leaders responsible. Two other cases from the 1980’s Xuncax v. Gramajo and Ortiz v. Gramajo were civil damages suits filed on behalf of Guatemalans, all Kanjobal Indians who were brutalized, lost loved ones, and lived in highland villages demolished by Gramajo’s soldiers. They charge former Defense Minister of Guatemala Hector Gramajo with the murder, torture, and false imprisonment of Guatemalans. In Ortiz v. Gramajo, Michael met Sister Dianna Ortiz, an American nun who was living and teaching literacy and religion to school children in San Miguel Acatan, Guatemala. She charged Gramajo with the responsibility for her abduction, rape, and other torture by military and security personnel.
In 1991 two events occurred that were central to CCR’s work for much of the decade: the Gulf War and the coup overthrowing President Aristide of Haiti. With CCR lawyers Michael Ratner litigated two cases challenging the authority of President Bush to go to war against Iraq without congressional consent, forcing Bush to seek congressional approval. In the aftermath of the Haiti coup, he began to advocate on behalf of Haitian refugees in a series of cases that would become all-consuming for several years. Ending the U.S. interdiction of Haitians on the high seas, their internment at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, and their forcible return to Haiti, became his first fight to close Guantanamo. Working both legally and politically, forging alliances with ACT-UP, Black AIDS Mobilization, and numerous Haitian refugee groups. Michael Ratner spoke and wrote extensively to publicize the cause of his clients and conducted ongoing, delicate negotiations with both the Bush and Clinton administrations. In the end, the case was a success; the HIV-positive Haitian refugees were freed and the camp was closed.
Since 9/11 Michael Ratner has worked closely with Sister Ortiz and the Catholic organization, Witness Against Torture, staging many demonstrations against the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo and calling for its closure. Since Michael Ratner’s involvement in Guantanamo began in the 1990’s with Haitian Centers Council v Sale, his intimate knowledge of the conditions there provided a passionate intensity for the campaign he began once again, 10 years later and from day one, to shut down Guantanamo. Michael Ratner’s life-long quest to seek out legal ways to end all torture is a study in relentless perseverance and a constant inspiration.
Most recently his courage to take on provocative cases this has led to the pursuit toward justice for the Palestinians. In addition, CCR has launched an outreach action program in support of the Goldstone Report on the Gaza War. CCR submitted a complaint to the United Nations Special Rapporteurs around the desecration of a historic Muslim cemetery, Mamilla, in Jerusalem by Israel, in conjunction with the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles, which plans to build a “Museum of Tolerance” on it. Similar to his initial decision to defend Guantanamo detainees, CCR stands alone in the United States in its legal efforts to hold Israel accountable for its policies. And perhaps what will become the most important case in terms of freedom of the press, Michael with CCR has taken on the defense of Wikileaks and Julian Assange.
Additionally, through his support and tenure as Board President and with CCR’s outreach program readings, debates, forums, concerts, books and plays that augment the legal work have all been produced. Michael Ratner hosts a weekly Radio show that is available online. The show, called “Law and Disorder” disseminates information about complicated legal issues and CCR cases in a completely engaging way. He is popularizing human rights law in that particular American way, by speaking directly to people without the language of legalese barring anyone.
Another example of creative outreach involves Michael Ratner’s book The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: A Prosecution By Book (with CCR). It is used by organizations across the United States familiarizing citizens with the legal terms of accountability for the Bush Administration’s torture program. In 2003 he published along with other CCR attorneys Against War with Iraq: An Anti-War Primer. Most recently he published with CCR and Margaret Ratner Kunstler Hell No: Your Right to Dissent In Twenty-First-Century America.
From the most important civil rights, prison reform, and racial justice cases defending freedom of speech, religion and dissent, to the use of law in fighting government abuse of power through illegal immigrant sweeps, extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention, to the use of the Alien Tort Statute, to the use of Universal Jurisdiction as a way of holding U. S. officials accountable in foreign courts, Michael Ratner, CCR and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, ECCHR, have advanced the struggle for justice and the protection of the rights guaranteed by the US Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Michael is Board President of ECCHR.
Michael often tells the transformative story of being a law student at Columbia University and walking into a protest by accident, being thrown to the ground and rising bloodied and ready to take on the world. It may have been a serendipitous moment or fate, but either way it is our great privilege to have benefitted from his leadership and generous spirit.
A selection of obituaries:
Michael Ratner Memorial on June 13, 2016:
Michael Ratner on Reality Asserts Itself