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Robert Amsterdam Interview with Diplomaatia

Below is an excerpt of a wide-ranging interview with Robert Amsterdam by the Estonian publication Diplomaatia:

How did you end up doing what you are doing? How do people all over the world find you?

I would have to say that in Thailand and Kyrgyzstan it was by word of mouth. As for Khodorkovsky, we did this major case that is still going on in Guatemala and that got a lot of attention over the years because it involved us representing a group who was prepared to take on the whole oligarchy, which we were prepared to do. That case has been something of a template case for what we did for Khodorkovsky, in Nigeria or for the Red Shirts in Thailand, in Kyrgyzstan and for other cases – we’ve been involved for the last year in a major dispute in the Czech Republic. So, it is really an amalgam of various roles that are not just legal in nature, but that also very much involve understanding politics.


This brings us back to the question ofpromoting democracy. You have said elsewhere that you do not callyourself a human rights lawyer, you do not believe in human rights as areligion. To what extent is your activity motivated by idealism?

I have met human rights heroes. Anna Politkovskayawas a human rights hero and a friend. A colleague of mine, a Russianlawyer, was murdered three years ago – a hero and a friend. KarinnaMoskalenko is like a sister to me – I adore the lady, she is a hero, afriend and somebody I admire greatly, and she is a human rights lawyer. Iam a business lawyer who believes in the rule of law and who has cometo human rights as somebody in the street. When I do cases, I don’t dothem from behind a desk.

I have come to human rights in the last 15 yearsfrom the concept of the rule of law, from watching political repression,suppression, murders, and from seeing that human rights are animportant way to frame these disputes. But it is like with everythingelse – intellectually I am someone who needs constant challenges, and towork just on this rarefied human rights litigation, where you go fromcase to case arguing interesting points of human rights law, is nothing Ican do. I did a major pro bono case last summer in Kenya on behalf ofan employee of the UN who had been physically and mentally broken by theUN with respect to his activities in Zimbabwe. It was a deeply movingexperience and it cost me a tremendous amount of money, so I can’tafford to be a human rights lawyer all that often.

When I can, I do so. We freed a political prisonerin Bulgaria. Again, it was a tremendous investment for us, but we freedhim by our ability to use international law, international criminal lawand political knowledge. If I was doing that 24/7, I would be a humanrights lawyer. I am not doing that 24/7. What I and my team have donefor the Red Shirts is a big step for them. It has been a huge 9-montheffort to try to bring criminals to justice, criminals who are in onecase even educated. It’s very difficult when human rights abusers lookthat good to make people understand. It is easier to paint VladimirPutin as a human rights abuser than Abhisit of Thailand, but they aregraphic abusers and I witnessed it when I was in Bangkok. It wasabsolutely horrific to witness.

Who accused you of promoting ‘Western’ values in connection with the case?

I have been accused of everything there. They arenot used to dealing with somebody actively advocating for these peoplewhom they consider to be the ‘unwashed’ – there is almost a racialelement in the case of the Red Shirts. The Bangkok elite often refers tothem in pejorative terms. It is quite amazing.

How do people in the West see what you aredoing? Do you ever hear things like ‘don’t mess with foreign regimes -they have their own culture and ways of doing things’?

All the time. We get warned off cases; we get attacked for sticking our noses in where we should not be. All the time.

At the same time, there are Russian liberalscomplaining that Western people do not care enough for their own valuesor the rule of law elsewhere. Do you think we should be promoting theso-called Western values, the rule of law and human rights moreactively?

The rule of law is a universal value, as are humanrights. In Russia, I have met with ‘sovereign democracy’ as some sort ofopponent to human rights. In Asia, I have met with ‘Asian values’. Inmy press conference on Monday, I intend to quote Confucius. I don’tthink human dignity is minimised because of the colour of your skin. Ithink that human dignity is minimised because elites have an economicinterest in screwing people. That is one of the reasons why I am notjust a human rights lawyer – I believe that much of the politicalrepression we see is economic in nature. The older I get, the more Irespect Karl Marx.