ECCHR mourns the loss of Michael Ratner
We are deeply saddened to learn of the death of Michael Ratner on 11 May 2016. With his passing ECCHR loses a longstanding and important friend and mentor.
By Wolfgang Kaleck
Michael Ratner was one of the founders of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and lent his valuable support to our organization’s work ever since. Most recently, he served as chairman of ECCHR’s council. We are thankful for the time with him and for his untiring and fearless dedication to human rights around the world.
In New York in summer 2004, I had the good fortune of getting to know Michael, who was at that time president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), as well as Peter Weiss, the vice president, and their organization. We were working together on a criminal complaint against US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other government, military and legal officials for systematic torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, which we filed with German prosecutors in November 2004. We did not succeed on this first attempt to bring the “architects of torture” before the courts. But we did manage to bring about some progress, and continued this work in France, Spain, Belgium and then once again in Germany after the release of the US Senate report on CIA torture in December 2014. We have persisted with this case ever since those first legal interventions in 2004.
This ongoing battle against torture was and is of great importance. But Michael was more than a partner in this work; we became friends. He inspired and encouraged us to set up a similar organization to the CCR. And so, in 2007, we founded the ECCHR in Berlin.
We don’t wish to compare ourselves to the long-standing tradition of the CCR, which stretches back to 1966. The CCR team in New York has for decades supported countless social movements fighting discrimination in the US and challenging US wars. It was fascinating to listen to Michael speak about the past half century in the United States. He often spoke of the hope that pervaded around 1968, a vision of great societal change. But he also described the unfathomable violence inflicted by the state against the black movement at home and against liberation movements in Central and South America. Unlike many of his colleagues in the US, Michael was an internationalist – not a dogmatist but rather someone who knew, from painful experience, how important it is to challenge the power and dominance of the United States. And he was not blind to the mistakes of the leftists who came to power. He supported Cuban independence and post-Sandinist Nicaragua. He used the law to try to put checks on US military interventions in Grenada, El Salvador, Haiti and Nicaragua. He regularly met with representatives of social movements like the landless movement in Brazil. In recent years he supported the work of his children, of whom he was so proud: Jake, who worked with activists opposing water privatization in El Alto, Bolivia, and Ana, working in Oaxaca, Mexico
All of his experiences, including the setbacks and defeats that are almost inevitable in this line of work, brought Michael to us in Berlin. Before the onset of his cancer in summer 2015, Michael never missed an ECCHR board meeting or our annual conference with partner organizations and alumn*. He was always an important compass and support for us. For him, these efforts were self-evident, arising from a quiet sense of duty. From his sickbed he told me how much he enjoyed coming to Berlin. He spoke then not of our – no doubt always productive – meetings, but focused instead on our exhibition openings and parties. There you could always find him, long after midnight, still chatting away to colleagues old and young. Any kind of lawyerly arrogance was alien to Michael.
Michael served as president emeritus of CCR until his death. In his work as a lawyer, his clients included WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and several Guantánamo detainees.
Whenever Michael spoke of the US detention center at Guantánamo, which remains open seven years after Barack Obama took office, or of the political failure of the left, there were traces of bitterness in his words. But he always persevered in his – in our – efforts. Never blind, always looking left and right, never forgetting about the people around him.
Michael will be missed, by me and by us all. We grieve together with his wife Karen, his children Ana and Jake and all the Ratners, who over the past months gave everything, and especially all their love, to save Michael from that terrible illness.