Remembering Michael Ratner: Radical Lawyer, Global Activist, Loyal Friend
Today we mourn. Tomorrow we continue his work.
By Phyllis Bennis
May 12, 2016
One of our movement’s champions, Michael Ratner, died yesterday. He was one of the greats among radical lawyers. With his colleagues at the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild and beyond, he linked brilliant, innovative legal approaches with creative strategies for advocacy, activism, and mobilization.
Michael sued in U.S. courts to implement the decision of the International Court of Justice holding the Unite States liable for bombing Nicaragua. He defended inmates charged in the Attica prison uprising. He worked to get protesters out of jail, among them Central American activists and Palestinian human rights defenders. And he was among the first to say that detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison, held without charge or trial in the so-called “global war on terror,” deserved lawyers, legal rights, and a challenge to their illegal detention.
Michael was a consummate internationalist, committed to international law as well as global activism on Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti, Palestine, and further. He helped create Palestine Legal, a team of lawyers and legal workers he mentored to defend Palestinian rights activists in the U.S. He worked with CCR founder and longtime IPS board member Peter Weiss along with CCR’s Rhonda Copelon to figure out ways to use U.S. law to go after military dictators around the world.
In 2006 Michael, along with his CCR colleague Maria LaHood and their client Maher Arar, a Canadian whom the U.S. had sent off to Syria to be tortured in 2002, accepted IPS’s annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award. It was presented by acclaimed actor-activist Vanessa Redgrave.
Michael was an extraordinary human being. The last time I saw him was at the flag-raising of the just-reopening Cuban Embassy in Washington in July 2015. He was, he said, more excited than at any moment other than the birth of his children.
Beyond his passion for justice and his powerful insistence on standing up to oppression and oppressors, Michael was a funny and incredibly loyal friend. I still remember an unexpected phone call years ago from Michael, who had just heard I had been diagnosed with cancer. He just wanted to tell me, “If you need any help, any money, if there’s anything, *anything* that you need — another doctor, a new drug, anything — you call me. I’m here.” And he always was.
His death is a huge loss for all of us. But what a gift that we had Michael with us for so long. Now it’s our turn to be inspired by his commitment to justice and challenged by his fierce courage in fighting for it. As his CCR comrades wrote yesterday, “Today we mourn. Tomorrow we continue his work.”
(The photos are from the 2006 IPS Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards,
where Vanessa Redgrave presented the awards to Michael on behalf of CCR,
along with CCR client and Canadian citizen Maher Arar who the US had sent
off to be tortured in Syria…)