Brody worked with the non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) between 1998 and 2016. He was personally involved in the investigation and preparation of criminal cases against at least four US-backed dictators during the Reagan administration: Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Hissène Habré in Chad, Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti, and Ríos Montt in Guatemala.
He has dedicated his life to laying siege to the great political criminals. When in 2012 the panel of judges of the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone considered former Liberian President Charles Taylor responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed between 1991 and 2002 during the conflict in Sierra Leone, which cost the lives of 120,000 people, the HRW’s lawyer issued a warning to the world’s most powerful: “With this verdict, Taylor became the first former head of state convicted by an international tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity, after the Nuremberg trial. The same legal logic could be applied to Vladimir Putin or Henry Kissinger.”
Charles Taylor was convicted of having encouraged and provided weapons and logistical support to the Sierra Leonean rebels, a criminal complicity that brings to Brody’s memory Kissinger’s role in the atrocities committed during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor: “East Timor weighs heavy on Kissinger’s conscience.”
Documents made public in 2001 revealed that on December 6, 1975, the day before the invasion of East Timor, US President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave the green light to the military operation during a meeting in Jakarta with Indonesian dictator General Suharto.
The occupation lasted until 2002 and cost the lives of about 200,000 East Timorese. The US provided the Indonesian military with 90 percent of the weapons used, and Kissinger ensured supplies continued being delivered despite the restrictions imposed by the US Congress, when the invasion had already led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths.
“Unfortunately, the powerful and those they protect continue to escape an international judicial architecture still under development.”
The fight against the impunity of the powerful
Born in 1953 in New York, the son of a Hungarian Jew who escaped from the German forced labour camps and a militant pacifist mother, Reed Brody soon felt the call to align with the weak.
In the 1970s he campaigned against the war in Vietnam. While most of his colleagues at Columbia Law School integrated into Wall Street’s financial institutions, he insisted on being the “advocate of the persecuted.”
In 1984, he left the position of Assistant Attorney General of the State of New York and headed for Nicaragua, where he collected testimonies of the atrocities committed by the Contras, the guerillas armed by Washington which fought the Sandinistas of Daniel Ortega, then in power.
Based on the testimonies of the victims obtained with the help of Catholic missionaries, he produced a detailed report. Published in 1985 by the New York Times, the document led the US Congress to convene an inquiry and cancel for some time the financing of Nicaragua’s Contras.
Between 1987 and 1992, Brody worked in Geneva with the International Commission of Jurists and the UN Commission on Human Rights. He was sent by the United Nations to El Salvador in 1994 and to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1995 and 1997.
In 1998, he had already joined the HRW, and participated in the Rome Conference that validated the Statutes of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the first permanent court of its kind after Nuremberg.
In October of the same year, Augusto Pinochet was detained in London. After being recognised as a party to the litigation and HRW’s Brody sent his reports to the British judges. And when in November Britain’s House of Lords withdrew immunity from the former Chilean dictator, the American lawyer’s fight against the impunity of the powerful reached a new milestone.
The Pinochet precedent
It was after being contacted by Souleymane Guengueng, a political prisoner of the Hissène Habré regime, that Brody began a 17-year pursuit of Habré, accused of 40,000 murders and systematic torture during his eight years as Chad’s president in the 1980s.
Judged in 2015 in Senegal, where he had been living in exile since 1990, the former dictator was sentenced a year later to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity which included torture, rape and sexual slavery.
It was the first process of universal jurisdiction carried out on the African continent, the first in which a head of state was tried in a court of another country.
“Under the Rome Statute, victims are actors of international justice rather than its passive subjects,” says Reed Brody.
It was like this in the Habré case: the testimony of the survivors was decisive for the Senegalese court backed by the African Union to condemn the dictator. The prosecution of Jean-Claude Duvalier for crimes against humanity was possible thanks to the perseverance of survivors such as Boby Duval, who recorded 180 deaths in Fort Dimanche jail cell and journalist Michèle Montas. Likewise, in Ríos Montt’s trial, the prosecution strategy was based on the testimonies of indigenous communities and human rights activists, who identified the survivors.
The United States bolsters the existence of a justice system that is applied to other countries in the world and has been a leading contributor to the architecture of an international accountability system. With one exception, Brody points out: “This system should not be applied to the United States. They like the Hague tribunal for Yugoslavia, for Rwanda, Sierra Leone or Cambodia, but not for a court that has unlimited jurisdiction.”
According to the human rights activist, this conviction is shared by most policy makers in Washington. Democrats and Republicans do not appreciate the idea that Washington might find itself constrained in its military strategies by an international law enforced by an international judicial body. “The traditional view of the protection of American interests is that American interests are better protected if the United States is the strongest country and not subject to a system of international rules and regulations.”
US society is not even aware that these things have happened: “When recently, in an interview with Fox News, they asked Donald Trump about Russia, he replied that our country is not so innocent. If we were honest, it was a statement with a sense of reality,” says Brody, adding that “no country that exercises the kind of power the United States exercises, whether the United States, Russia or China, will have an entirely ethical international policy.”
When it became clear in 2011 that the Obama administration did not intend to take any legal action against former President George W. Bush following the US Senate report on the use of torture techniques by the CIA after the 9/11, Reed Brody called on foreign governments to file lawsuits for war crimes against Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and ex-CIA director George Tenet for ordering the practice of torture and other crimes.
“Under international law, any government has jurisdiction to try cases of torture and war crimes,” says Brody.