Posted by: Castan Centre | April 7, 2016

First Month at CCR

By Sarah Sacher

From the instant I walked into the CCR lobby, my expectations were pleasantly confounded. Posters hung all over the walls, loudly advocating various causes from Black Lives Matter to Palestinian rights. Every office door was similarly adorned with colourful protest signs and radical calls to action. The staff were dressed casually and the there was a documentary crew setting up in one of the rooms to interview an attorney about the impact of drone warfare. The effect left no doubt in my mind that the Center for Constitutional Rights is an activist organisation first and foremost.

As I settled into the internship I learned about the “movement lawyering” philosophy that underlines CCR’s approach. The CCR mission statement advocates “the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.” The achievement of social justice is the primary driver of CCR activities in and out of the courts, and the organisation is always looking at the law from different angles, devising strategies that push it in new and progressive directions. For example, CCR pioneered the use of the Alien Tort Statute as a tool to sue human rights abusers domestically in the late 70’s, effectively starting a new legal accountability movement. Every case CCR takes on is motivated not necessarily by “winning”, but by drawing attention to human rights issues in the service of broader social change.

I was placed on the International Human Rights docket, which does not do anything by halves, taking on projects with goals that range from indicting George Bush to suing the Pope. In my first week I read through material on the use of torture by the CIA so that I could be up to date with the work CCR does on US torture accountability in the international arena. My reading included the 525 page “executive summary” of the 2014 Senate Torture Report which became a kind of dark bible for me as I delved into writing memos on the detention and rendition program. One of CCR’s strategies is to use universal jurisdiction legislation in a range of countries to hold US torturers accountable for their actions. Lengthy cases in Spain, Canada, Italy and France have been opened with the aim of targeting key members of the Bush administration. Because the US is not a member of the International Criminal Court and has not prosecuted anyone for torture abuses, these cases are a final mechanism for criminal prosecutions to be held. Even as these cases become mired in procedural or logistical problems, they are still a powerful advocacy tool that can draw attention to US human rights abuses and the continuing impunity of key perpetrators.

While the subject matter of my first project was highly disturbing it felt incredible to be working on such an important matter. Especially as the opportunity to actively work on torture accountability is one I would likely not come across in Australia. The one year anniversary of the torture report rolled around on December 9th providing some depressing momentum to the task at hand, as little concrete change has resulted since it was first declassified.

In my first month I also participated in a range of different matters outside of torture, each providing me with an education and insight into human rights issues and the unique litigation strategy of the human rights docket. This included less ‘traditional’ legal work, for example I learned all about alternative transitional justice models while contributing to the work CCR does for the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP). I also picked up fascinating insights via osmosis, by sitting in on staff meetings where topics such as strategies for Guantanamo and the work CCR does for the NGO SMUG (“Sexual Minorities Uganda”) were discussed.

One highlight was attending CCR’s public screening of Citizenfour, an Oscar winning documentary on Edward Snowden and the breaking of the NSA story by Glenn Greenwald and other journalists. The film had special significance to me as I wrote my thesis in 2015 on metadata surveillance in Australia and the US. One of the things that struck me about the film was the calculated, calm and non-self-aggrandising approach Edward Snowden took to making the decision to release NSA information. He repeatedly stated in the film “I’m not the story” and insisted the focus remain on NSA practices. Of course, that statement took on some irony in the context of a film that largely focused on him and his personality, but it nonetheless provided insight into the make-up of an individual by turn lauded as a hero and derided as a traitor. After the movie one of the attorneys participated in a Q and A session where he gave very practical advice on how to cover your tracks on the internet. Writing my thesis had already filled me with intense paranoia about being watched by shady government agencies, and this session absolutely cemented that paranoia. Though I suppose it is not paranoia if it is definitely happening at all times.

Living in New York while working at CCR was a dream come true. Undeterred by the wintry weather I spent my first few weeks exploring Manhattan on foot, top to bottom, usually on the lookout for drinkable coffee. I knew I had blended in with the locals the first time I angrily yelled at a bike rider for almost running me over at an intersection and got cheered by my fellow pedestrians. Next time I will write about living in New York and some of the unique opportunities that arose from being part of an NGO in the city, including my day attending sessions at the UN.

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