Photo © Beatrice Moritz Photography 2019
By Raye Mocioiu
“George’s father always said that the most important thing in life is to challenge people with power and defend people with no power. He says if you do that, you succeed,” said human rights lawyer and Clooney Foundation for Justice co-founder Amal Clooney.
This inspired the couple to set up the Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ), which provides free legal support to victims of abuse of power. From women to journalists, to survivors of atrocities, to LGBTQ+ people to democracy defenders, CFJ aids in access to justice, helping those in need to fight for their rights. We sat down with the Clooneys to discuss their upcoming Albie Awards, the fight for press freedom, and what it means to wage justice in an ever-changing world.
GH: What does it mean to wage justice? How can that be done?
George Clooney: Our mission is waging justice to create a world where human rights are protected and no one is above the law. We believe we have to wage justice because justice doesn’t just happen. Peace, like war, must be waged. And justice, too, is something we must fight for, especially now as we see countries worldwide backsliding on human rights. At CFJ, we provide free legal support to victims of abuses of power: journalists who are locked up just for doing their job and telling the truth; young girls who are denied the right to study or work or the right to decide who to marry; minorities who are targeted for genocide. We help them to fight for their rights through the courts.
Amal Clooney: One of our initiatives, ‘TrialWatch,’ monitors criminal trials in over 40 countries. Once local monitors whom we train up monitor a trial, we get some of the world’s leading legal experts to grade the trials and expose those that are a sham. Then we work with local lawyers to free those who are imprisoned. ‘The Docket’ gathers evidence of war crimes and genocide, from Ukraine to the Congo, Darfur, to Venezuela and Iraq, and represents survivors in trials where perpetrators are in the dock. Our newest initiative is ‘Waging Justice for Women.’ We work hand-in-hand with young women in Africa to pursue their rights through the courts and run ‘women for women’ legal aid clinics that provide free legal support to women and girls who are victims of gender-based discrimination. All of this work is dedicated to advancing accountability for abuse because we believe that if you expose and raise the cost of abusive behavior, it is less likely to recur.
You are hosting your inaugural ‘Albie Awards’ this September, which will shine a light on justice warriors at risk—what is the driving force behind the awards?
Amal: In our work, we come across many heroic people on the frontlines of the fight for justice, putting their lives at risk. As a lawyer, I have represented countless people who faced prison simply because they challenged those in power—as journalists, judges, or politicians. George has worked with activists and aid workers in some of the most dangerous parts of the world. They were focused on all kinds of causes—women, refugees, democracy—but what they had in common was that they wouldn’t back down from the fight for justice, no matter the cost. This event will shine a light on five courageous individuals who have put themselves at risk in the fight for justice. We hope the award will have a protective force on them.
George: The Albie Awards will be co-hosted by Darren Walker, a member of the CFJ Board and the President of the Ford Foundation. In addition, Nobel Laureates Nadia Murad and Maria Ressa, both brave women who pursue justice with Amal as their legal counsel, will be there, along with well-known figures like Meryl Streep, Aloe Blacc, Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Dua Lipa, John Oliver, Julia Roberts, Bruce Springsteen, and Patti Scialfa. Dr. Denis Mukwege, another Nobel Laureate who is on CFJ’s Board will be there along with other illustrious guests whom we are not announcing just yet…And we have leading corporations and firms supporting the event. We believe that—as a U.S. judge once said—sunlight is the best disinfectant. It is harder for governments and regimes to target journalists, women, and vulnerable groups when the world is watching.
The name of the awards comes from activist and former judge Albert Sachs—what led to the decision to name the awards in his honor?
George: We met Albie with Justice Sonya Sotomayor in New York about four years ago– but we had heard about his work long before. He’s an incredibly honorable and brave man. He was an anti-apartheid activist who was detained in South Africa for his work, and the South African security forces tried to assassinate him through a car bombing. He lost his arm and his sight in one eye, and he just kept going. Kept fighting. He was one of the lawyers who drafted South Africa’s constitution, and Nelson Mandela appointed him to serve on the country’s highest court. When you think of fighting for justice, no matter what, you think of Albie, and that’s why he’s getting our inaugural lifetime achievement award and why this event will be called The Albies.
Who are the other awardees?
Amal: The awardees are remarkable. Our Albie Award for journalists is going to the extraordinary Filipino journalist Maria Ressa who faces a lifetime behind bars for her work in the Philippines, exposing government abuses through her reporting.
Our Albie for survivors goes to iACT—a group supporting refugees in dangerous war zones that worked with CFJ to gather evidence for a trial against a Sudanese militia leader for crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court.
Our Albie for democracy-defenders goes to human rights group Viasna—one of the leading NGOs in Belarus, documenting abuses and helping survivors for nearly 30 years. This one may have to be an empty chair: both of the organization’s leaders are in jail, and more than half of the team has been forced to flee the country.
And finally, the Albie for women goes to Dr. Josephine Kulea on behalf of the Samburu Girls Foundation. This organization helps to provide safe refuge for girls looking to escape child marriage, female genital mutilation, and other harmful practices. SGF has been able to provide a safe place to live for over 1,500 girls in Kenya and place them in schools around the country, despite facing significant threats and abuse from men seeking to assert control over the girls.
Tell us about your work in Ukraine. What does justice look like in this case?
Amal: Our work representing survivors in Ukraine is the same work we’ve done in many other conflicts. We have a team on the ground in Ukraine investigating potential war crimes—we gather evidence and share it with prosecutors in Ukraine and around the world. We have tech experts working with Microsoft to analyze open-source material and satellite imagery so that we can present that evidence to the International Criminal Court. We are tracking cases of sexual and gender-based violence against women.
George: We are also tracking the activities of the Kremlin-backed mercenary Wagner Group. And President Zelensky appointed Amal to a working group of international experts to advise on international mechanisms for victims to access justice and compensation to rebuild their lives. We hope that those responsible for the crimes we see every day will be brought to trial—in Ukraine, The Hague, or elsewhere—and we will continue to assist Ukrainian survivors until that happens.
One clear area of focus for the Foundation is the protection of journalists and the free press. What can be done to support the work of journalists, given the threats they face?
George: Waging justice on journalists’ behalf has always been important to us. Amal has defended and continues to defend journalists all over the world. She has an unmatched track record of keeping journalists out of prison—from Egypt to Myanmar to Azerbaijan, and currently represents Maria Ressa in the Philippines.
Amal: This year, we’ve witnessed the number of journalists behind bars reach a record high. They are locked up simply for doing their job—sharing the truth. We’ve seen members of the press murdered in the heart of Europe in countries like Malta and Slovakia and war-torn Ukraine. Some governments are bold enough to kidnap journalists on commercial airliners in mid-air. CFJ has now monitored dozens of cases in which press freedom is at stake. We have covered the crackdowns on journalists in Belarus, Thailand, and Hong Kong. We recently announced we’ll be monitoring the appeal of journalist and Washington Post contributor Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent critic of the Russian government. And we don’t just expose what is wrong—we provide free legal advice and representation for those unjustly detained and push for legal reforms to prevent further abuses. In time, TrialWatch will use the data it gathers from courtrooms around the world to publish a Global Justice Ranking of national systems, using those rankings to support advocacy for systemic change.
As human rights activists and public figures, you have both shared the sentiment that the pursuit of justice is not just a passion but a duty. How do you stay hopeful in the pursuit of justice at this moment in history?
Amal: George always reminds our team that we will most likely fail time and time again, but we have to keep trying. Failing is a natural part of a difficult journey. George was raising awareness about atrocities committed by the government and ‘Janjaweed’ militias in Darfur two decades ago.
George: And now Amal is working to prosecute the first Janjaweed leader at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Journalists and opposition who’ve been behind bars with little hope have been released one after the other. Just last year, Amal represented a Yazidi victim of ISIS in what became the first conviction of an ISIS fighter for genocide anywhere in the world. Justice for war crimes is not easy or swift. But we must continue the fight.
Learn more at cfj.org