Doug Cassel in Lincoln Hall at Northwestern University School of Law

In 1991 attorney Douglass Cassel sat in a courtroom in El Salvador as an observer at the trial of Salvadoran soldiers and officers charged with murdering six dissident Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter. He represented the American Bar Association, one of the international observers appointed by the Salvadoran Supreme Court. The judge had little control over a crowd just outside the courthouse that was led by a colonel attempting to intimidate the jury. Low-flying airplanes circled ominously above the courthouse.

“From my experience in human rights work in El Salvador, I had expected that Americans were effectively insulated from any real threat,” Cassel says. He was “taken aback” to find the assumption wrong. “If the Salvadoran military could attempt to intimidate even the international observers,” he wondered, “how much fear might they instill in the jury and judge?”

Fear did not keep Cassel from returning to the Central American country the next year, when the U.N. Commission on the Truth for El Salvador enlisted him as its legal adviser. Cassel and the commission members received faxed death threats and had to be under the protection of bodyguards. They left prematurely to guarantee their own safety and that of their files, which documented more than a decade of corruption, torture and systematic murder by the government and military.

Once again, Cassel’s response to intimidation was to persevere in the fight to make the world take human rights and international law seriously. After building a strong foundation for DePaul University’s International Human Rights Law Institute, which he had co-founded in 1990, Cassel founded and became the first director of Northwestern University School of Law’s new Center for International Human Rights in 1998. During the 1990s he assisted in international investigations from Colombia to Indonesia and defended citizens from Guatemala, Venezuela and Poland. Waging the campaign at home as well as abroad, Cassel spoke out against the death penalty in a 1999 report to the Illinois House of Representatives Death Penalty Task Force. He currently assists the legal team working for the detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, whom the United States has been holding since fall 2001 on suspicion of having terrorist links.

Cassel writes prolifically on international law and human rights in professional journals, Spanish-language periodicals and the mass media. For the last nine years he has done weekly commentaries on human rights issues on Worldview, Chicago Public Radio’s international news analysis program. The Organization of American States elected him to the board of directors of the Justice Studies Center for the Americas, which in turn chose him to be its president. He is also president of the Due Process of Law Foundation, which promotes justice reform in this hemisphere.

All this is in addition to his teaching duties. “My job is primarily to educate law students about international law,” says Cassel, a clinical associate professor at the School of Law, “but I hope I can reach the greater public, including American lawyers.”

Cassel brings more than 30 years’ experience in civil rights to an international group of law students, acquainting them with international laws and institutions that protect the most vulnerable people in the remotest corners of the world. “His point of view is objective,” comments student Budi Sansoto, an Indonesian attorney studying for an advanced law degree, “but he is concerned about victims and the powerless. Sometimes when he is going to explore some human rights theory, it’s not only as a professor but as an activist.”

Admiration comes not only from those who agree with Cassel politically. “Doug Cassel has pushed the law school to a whole new level, ” comments Stephen Presser, the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History and one of the school’s more politically conservative faculty members. “He is fearless. His is a morally based practice. And with his skills and contacts, he’s built bridges.”

Cassel’s first brush with oppressive regimes was as a 16-year-old student in a school-year abroad program in Spain in 1964–65. He saw Gen. Francisco Franco’s cavalry storm a protest march by University of Barcelona students. Cassel, then a junior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., gaped at the soldiers’ attack, his naive image of Spain as part of the “free world” transformed into a reality of flying clubs and falling bodies. Cassel narrowly escaped the melee by diving under a gate, but the police found him and took him to a nearby station for interrogation. Although he was spared physical abuse, the Spanish students weren’t so lucky. “I remember hearing the screams in the basement below me,” he says. “Then I knew that the world is different from the pictures and stories in Time magazine.”

For Cassel, three seeds were planted by that experience: a love for the Spanish language, a lifelong passion for law and, most important, an abiding concern for “those voices in the basement.”

Cassel attended college in the tumultuous ’60s, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Yale and then entering Harvard Law School in 1969. He took part in the antiwar protests and the student strike over the Cambodian invasion, but he found his most meaningful participation in “the basement caucus of Harvard’s Langdell Hall,” where he worked with the civil rights–civil liberties research committee that provided free legal research for hard-pressed civil rights attorneys around the country.

From Harvard Cassel went directly to Ralph Nader’s Congress project in 1972. He wrote a chapter for the book Who Runs Congress? advising ordinary citizens how to lobby Congress. In 1972 he entered the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps and was eventually stationed at Great Lakes Naval Base in Illinois. Chicago became home, and Cassel went to work for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest in the city after leaving the Navy. He prosecuted class-action suits against the FBI for political surveillance and harassment of activists and argued consumer and environmental lawsuits.

Cassel believes that the Holocaust and World War II brought about a turning point in attitudes toward human rights, and the new views were reflected in the creation of the United Nations in l945. While “the human rights movement is still in its relative infancy,” he says, inquiries into alleged abuses have grown. International criminal tribunals, with specifically trained lawyers participating, investigated Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia. In this hemisphere, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights was created in l979 and has attracted the world’s attention. Its achievements are illustrated by a series of rulings involving Peru: citing the government for excessive violence in a prison massacre of rebellious Shining Path guerillas (1995); freeing a Peruvian dissident (1997); restoring to its owner a television station wrongfully taken by President Alberto Fujimori (2001).

These tribunals have needed attorneys with an understanding of international law. Cassel is one of the few U.S. lawyers “who really know Latin America,” says Juan Méndez, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame and director of its Center for Civil and Human Rights, with whom Cassel has worked on Latin American cases since l991. “The leaders in judicial reform there respect Doug,” Méndez says. “They know he doesn’t necessarily represent the U.S. government or a nongovernmental organization’s point of view but comes as an ally.” Cassel also brings modern methods to courtrooms whose protocols date to the 19th century, Méndez adds.

The public may know of human rights atrocities but not of how dangerous the work of investigators can be. “A trigger-happy land,” is how Cassel describes the El Salvador he investigated. During the civil war of 1980–92, 75,000 people perished, including civilians, journalists, U.S. nuns and Archbishop Oscar Romero, who spoke out against the military junta.

An army colonel and his aide were convicted in the “Jesuit trial” of 1991, but those who actually carried out the killings were found not guilty, and in 1993 a general amnesty freed the two convicted men. Two years ago the new Salvadoran Supreme Court ruled the amnesty illegal, but no high-ranking figure has been prosecuted. The U.N. Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, which interviewed 2,000 people anonymously under life-threatening conditions, found senior government and military officials culpable in the murders of innocent civilians as well as dissidents. The commission recommended the removal of many military officers, the minister of defense, a former top guerrilla commander and the entire Supreme Court of El Salvador. The commission’s report found that Gen. René Emilio Ponce, by then the minister of defense, had ordered the killings and taken part in a cover-up, yet he never stood trial.

At the request of the International Council for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, a Franciscan order of Catholic religious and lay people, and other human rights groups, Cassel conducted another major investigation in 1998. He was asked to organize an unofficial tribunal to investigate a Colombian Air Force bombing in the oil-rich province of Arauca that killed 17 civilians and wounded another 25. With help from colleague Bernardine Dohrn, director of the law school’s Children and Family Justice Center, Cassel convened an unofficial “tribunal of opinion” in Chicago. The tribunal, chaired by former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Seymour Simon, unanimously found the Colombian government responsible for the bombing and recommended proper prosecutions. The government was invited to the tribunal and declined to participate, so Cassel and Dohrn went to Colombia to present their case to the people.

Visiting Bogotá under normal circumstances is dangerous; arriving as U.S. lawyers presenting charges against government officials requires a special courage. “We presented our case in a sports stadium filled with 4,000 people,” says Dohrn. “It was quite a media event.” The crowd of mostly workers and peasants listened in silence as portions of the tribunal’s judgment were read aloud, and then it burst into applause. The Colombian attorney general later found an air force officer responsible for the bombing, but the case was stalled in military courts and is currently before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In an article published in the Chicago Journal of International Law, Cassel suggested that “what moves human rights forward is not a series of separate, parallel cords, but a ‘rope’ of multiple, interwoven strands.” The Colombian case is an example: the School of Law’s resources; law students; the Chicago firm Eimer, Stahl, Klevorn & Solberg, whose attorneys David Stahl and Lisa Meyer represent the bombing victims pro bono before the Inter-American Commission; and human rights activists and citizens in Colombia.

U.S. Court of Appeals Senior Judge Richard D. Cudahy, who serves on the Center for International Human Rights’ advisory board, notes that it is often Cassel who weaves the strands together. “Doug has important contacts in the Chicago community and elsewhere and can call on key people to participate in investigations,” Cudahy says.

Some years ago Cassel added another strand: public education. He began appearing on Worldview on NPR-affiliate station WBEZ in Chicago and publishing articles in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. His commentaries have become a weekly human rights and foreign affairs forum in Chicago and other cities where Worldview is syndicated. Program host Jerome McDonnell says, “Doug has been a crucial contributor to establishing a human rights community in Chicago. Many commentators featured in broadcasting have some sort of partisan bent. Doug’s bent is justice. The result is a fiercely independent voice.”

One of Cassel’s academic colleagues, Steven Lubet, a professor of law, makes a similar observation. “There is a troubling unanimity in the human rights community,” Lubet says, “but Doug is an independent thinker. He draws distinctions that other people miss.”

Along with his radio and newspaper commentaries, Cassel travels the lecture circuit. “Whenever Doug speaks, there is a high turnout,” says Dick Tholin of the Chicago area’s North Suburban Peace Initiative. “He is able to communicate effectively with a broad audience.”

Lately, Cassel’s concerns for international law have been heightened by Bush administration foreign policy. “Two important principles of international law were put to the test in the Iraq crisis,” he comments. “First, collective force must be authorized by the Security Council. Unilateral force may be used only in cases of self-defense or threat of imminent danger, and I don’t think the case was made for either. My greatest worry is that other countries will see the model of the United States’ pre-emptive attack and develop nuclear weapons as the only sure way to avoid being pre-emptively attacked by the superpower. The Bush administration asks, ‘How does this affect the United States?’ In my view, the question should be, ‘How does this decision affect the world?’”

Cassel has stepped up his writing and speaking out recently. In the weeks preceding the invasion of Iraq, there was hardly a Sunday morning that Chicago Tribune readers didn’t find a Douglass Cassel byline in the Perspective section. As other voices have become fainter with the military success, Cassel has grown louder.

“International law has been critical to the defense of human rights around the world,” he repeats. “To protect human dignity, we need to cooperate with other democracies, not take the law into our own hands. Power alone will not make the world safe, any more than power alone can bring peace to Iraq. As the world’s leading power, we should also be a leader in respect for the rule of law.”

Laura Wilson is a clinical social worker for Catholic Charities in Lake County, Ill. She also is a freelance writer based in Libertyville who specializes in social justice issues.

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