Michael Ratner (1943-2016)

Anyone in the US who is concerned about human rights would likely be familiar with the name Michael Ratner who died of cancer on May 11. He was a lawyer who served as long-time president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and took an all manner of unpopular causes, such as fighting on behalf of Julian Assange and for the rights of Guantanamo detainees, where he won an important victory when the US Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in 2008 that detainees had the right to the writ of habeas corpus. There have been many obituaries about his life and work and I will quote from just two.

The first by Emily Langer describes some of the cases that he had lost but he was undeterred by them, saying that he decided whether to pursue a case based on the principle involved, not on the likelihood of victory.

In 1990, he represented 54 congressional Democrats who unsuccessfully sought a court order barring President George H.W. Bush from taking the country to war in Iraq without congressional authorization; Bush later received authorization. Later that decade, Mr. Ratner represented lawmakers who similarly challenged President Bill Clinton’s authority to continue airstrikes in Kosovo amid ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

Outside the United States, the targets of his legal work included the repressive Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader convicted of genocide and war crimes charges by a United Nations tribunal in March. In the Middle East, he advocated on behalf of Palestinian rights.

But Mr. Ratner’s most high-profile role came during the administration of George W. Bush. In public commentaries and in the courts, he assailed what he regarded as the trampling of individual liberties in the name of national security after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. Ratner said that in the course of his legal work, he was threatened by some critics who regarded him as a traitor. He insisted that he was in the right and that the law was a necessary check on government abuses of power.

Philip Weiss says that Ratner was a stalwart friend and supporter of those who worked for social justice and was active in the movement to support Palestinian rights.

Michael Ratner, who died yesterday in New York, cared only about action. He had no interest in people who weren’t trying to change society structurally. He was outgoing and could talk to anyone anywhere but he didn’t like liberals or puffery or trivia.

When he read the Goldstone Report seven years ago and saw the repeated references to indiscriminate bombing and actual targeting of civilians he grasped the landmark moment and called us to some diner and said we had to make a book of it, and so we did. He was the exact opposite of Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power who at every turn brag about their work against the biased Goldstone Report. He saw the truth and held it up for others to see. He took his kids to the Gaza Freedom March too.

He was hard on liberalism, because he said it didn’t make the difference. He got angry at me when I supported the Libyan intervention in 2011 and never let me forget it. He said there was a flaw in my thinking that I could support such a thing. He wanted to go over it with me again and again. He was like a bulldog; he sensed the bourgeois wishywashy compromiser in me. His rule was that it was never good when the United States got militarily involved in a foreign country. He had seen it in South America and Central America and in Asia too. He was clear thinking and fascinated by the world and on issues of principle you couldn’t bend him.

I met him ten years ago and we walked the anti-Zionist path together, with humility. He gave me permission to speak in a way that my family was incapable of doing. He was emotional when he related something his friend the late painter Leon Golub said. Michael had a monumental painting on his wall of human rights atrocities in El Salvador by Golub and he said that when someone asked Golub what is a Jewish artist, he said, An artist who says nothing about Israel. Michael was resolved not to be that way. He came from a big Cleveland family that had played a role in the foundation of Israel, but that was not going to blinder him to reality. When he went out there and saw the splashy fountains and the stolen 500-year-old olive trees in East Jerusalem Jewish settlements, he was staggered and upset and gave a wrenching speech about apartheid and the death of a dream at Judson Memorial Church. He saw years ago that there was just one state.

As is often the case, Ratner’s views were shaped by his family and experiences in his formative years. As Langer describes:

He grew up in a home that championed the underdog. His mother helped resettle refugees from the Holocaust, and his father, an immigrant businessman committed to affording second chances, brought ex-cons home for dinner. A turning point for Mr. Ratner came in 1968, when he said he was beaten by police during a student protest at Columbia Law School.

“That night was crucial,” he told the New York Times in 2002. “An event like this created the activists of the next generation. I never looked back. I decided I was going to spend my life on the side of justice and nonviolence.”

Ratner came from large, wealthy, and prominent family in Cleveland and although he did not live here anymore, he would return periodically and give talks. I attended a talk when he was here a few years ago where he spoke about the state of constitutional rights under the Obama administration and he was impressive.

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