Yesterday, the U.S. human rights law community lost one of its giants. Michael Ratner, who pioneered the use of the Alien Tort Statute for human rights accountability, died at 72 due to complications from cancer.
An obituary in the New York Times details much of Michael’s career, including his leadership of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), early work representing inmates at Attica prison in New York, and the more recent fight for the rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Michael was part of so many fights, however, that the Times missed a critically important one – his pathbreaking work on transnational human rights litigation. Michael was one of the lawyers who worked on the pathbreaking case Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, the first case to recognize that the Alien Tort Statute could be used to hold abusers accountable for human rights violations.
My path has crossed with Michael’s several times, starting sixteen years ago, when as a law school student I had the opportunity to take a course on litigating international human rights that he co-taught with Harold Koh. He was an expert in the field – he co-wrote the textbook, “International Human Rights Litigation in U.S. Courts,” a bible of sorts for practitioners – but his class was anything but academic. Studying the doctrines was necessary background, but not nearly enough. He expected his students to research and write on urgent situations of human rights abuse, for practical use in putting a stop to these violations, in court and otherwise.
Under Michael’s leadership, CCR was also ERI’s co-counsel in human rights lawsuits against Unocal, Chevron, and Shell, cases in which we took the Filartiga precedent and extended it to multinational corporations that abetted, and profited from, serious human rights abuses. I think it’s safe to say that the entire U.S. human rights litigation community is in his debt, in one form or another, and he will be missed.