May 12, 2016
It was with great sadness that the Bill of Rights Defense Committee/Defending Dissent Foundation learned that Michael Ratner has passed away. Michael was a friend and supporter of BORDC/DDF, was President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and was a former president of the National Lawyers Guild. Michael spent his career as a lawyer working to advance civil liberties, human rights, and social justice. His was involved with defending the rights of the prisoners from the Attica Rebellion, challenging the legality of U.S. military interventions in Central America and the Caribbean, and representing both Haitian refugees detained by George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and prisoners of the Global War on Terror Detained by George W. Bush and Barack Obama at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The story of Michael’s tireless work on behalf of the military detainees at Guantánamo Bay is particularly noteworthy. While many powerful law firms and individuals, like Janet Reno, would later join the defense of the Guantánamo detainees, in the early days few were willing to challenge the policies associated with the Global War on Terror.
Michael, however, did not wait until Guantánamo became a cause célèbre in civil liberties circles. Michael decided to take up the cause of opposing indefinite detention when he read about the order that authorized this detention on November 14, 2001–a month after 9/11 and two months before the first prisoner would be transferred to Guantánamo. Less than a month after the first prisoners were brought to Guantánamo Michael would help to bring the first case demanding U.S. courts review the detention of Guantánamo prisoner. According to David Cole, Michael thought his chances of winning were zero, but helped to bring the case anyway, because it was the principled thing to do. The case in question, that of Shafiq Rasul, ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court, and in a landmark ruling the Court decided that Guantánamo detainees did have a right to challenge their detention.
There will always be those who tell us that now is not the right to time to defend human rights, that we should give deference to the powerful at the expense of the powerless. Yet, Michael was always willing to stand for human rights on principle–even when it was unpopular. His work and legacy is an inspiration to all of us at BORDC/DDF.