Amazing Work of Human Rights Lawyers


My brother, Michael Ratner, who left us in May, used to think I was a conservative. I am not sure if he thought that because I am a contributor to the Fox News Channel or because, in many instances, I was to the right of him.

This week, my family and I went to Germany for a conference of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, or ECCHR, honoring the life’s work of my brother. The Bertha Foundation sponsored it, and lawyers from around the world attended it.

One of the themes of the conference was “Challenging the Powerful by Legal Means.” The conference was in Berlin, and the ECCHR is based on the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary in New York. Having the conference in Berlin, which 75 years ago was controlled by the Nazis, represented a feat as the Center for Constitutional Rights in the United States was begun by three Jews and a Christian. This certainly could not have happened in Berlin when it was under the Nazis. Even 50 years ago in the United States there was a ceiling put on Jews for law-school admissions and hiring by prestigious law firms.

Many of the lawyers at the conference talked about “being right, but losing cases,” although some spoke about winning cases because judges are sensitive to what is going on. We are certainly seeing that with the North Dakota pipeline. If the protests were not occurring, the pipeline would go though and no one would utter a word against it.

Most of what took place at the conference was a discussion of how these human-rights lawyers were able to use the law to the advantage of their clients. During the conference, we heard how important it was to expose the hypocrisy of the elite and how the law is really storytelling to obtain justice for the victims of power. The conference focused on how the law gives people a tool to expose oppression as well as challenging people who were opposing people in their name.

What was very impressive is how this team of international lawyers was working together across countries to provide a way to challenge corporations. For instance, who was to think of going after the manufacturer of equipment that destroys homes in the Palestinian areas of Israel/Palestine? This group of lawyers did, and they also sued a multinational corporation for contributing to the murder of a trade union leader in Colombia. The lawyers said the way they get action is by having cases that impact the bottom line of a company. Going to war for profit, said one lawyer, should also be a war crime. Another lawyer asked, “Who reigns in the corporations?”

In Iraq, companies like Blackwater contributed to wars for profit. The ECCHR lawyers said these kinds of cases are a process, not just a discreet legal issue.

I sat in the courtroom when the Guantanamo case was argued before the Supreme Court in a case titled “Rasul v. Bush.” The case was won in a 6-3 decision, and it allowed Guantanamo detainees to challenge their confinement and to get legal representation. Hundreds of lawyers then volunteered to represent the people confined to Guantanamo, and my brother then dubbed the group the “Guantanamo Bar Association.” Many of these people where not guilty of anything but were picked up because our government was paying ransom, and people were literally willing to give people to the United States for the money they received.

Whatever you think of George W. Bush – and I am one who did not like him as president, but I have seen what amazing work he has done in Africa – this group of lawyers put enough pressure on him that he canceled a trip to Switzerland in 2011 because of the feeling internationally about Guantanamo and the war in Iraq.

We have problems in the United States. While some might say the “Black Lives Matter” movement is radical fringe, these attorneys say the facts “speak for themselves.” Before this movement, 87 percent of police “stop and frisk” stops in New York City were for people who were black or brown. This, as has been argued in court, is a violation of a basic of our law against unreasonable search and seizure. This is just one area that is being addressed by CCR and also ECCHR.

You might not agree with these lawyers, but their work is dedicated and amazing. They are real harbingers of peace and human rights, and they show that people from around the world can work together even in the face of large amounts of money and power. My brother might have thought I was to the right of him, and perhaps I was, but the work he did should make all of us proud, no matter if you are – right, left or in between. There is way too much that divides us, and we should be proud when we help those without support of their country or the law.


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