Amal Clooney doesn’t like talking about herself. Sit with the 44-year-old lawyer, and she’ll take you on a tour of some of the worst places in the world, where despots reign and standing up for your rights can get you killed. Yet, inevitably, she finds women in these places who want to challenge power, and she supercharges them with her own power: the law.
I know that because I’m one of them. Just for doing my job as a journalist, the authorities in the Philippines filed 10 arrest warrants against me in less than two years. Amal has helped defend me since 2019, and I’m a rarity for her because she can actually talk to me. In the past, her journalist clients were in prison, and she worked to free them by combining law with an incisive understanding of politics, pragmatism, and public advocacy.
What I’ve learned as one of her clients is that her empathy is as strong as her knowledge of the law and her courage. She’s also a hard worker, poring over thousands of pages of documents, highlighting, and taking meticulous notes. As she has often told me, you can’t do strategy if you don’t have the details. She knows my cases inside out, and many more too. When we spoke, she reeled off countless ones from memory: in Malawi, Darfur, Egypt, Myanmar, Azerbaijan, Tanzania, and more. She makes sure that women who are victims of mass atrocities, including genocide and sexual violence, are not forgotten, that they get justice, that their lives and communities are better as a result.
It’s sometimes hard to see all of Amal because of the glamour and celebrity that can overshadow her work. She embraces that and shines light on some of the darkest parts of the world to help her clients. She also quickly reminds you that she’s not just the wife of George but also the mother of adorable twins, Alexander and Ella. That has changed her. She told me, “With everything going on today, I want to have a good answer when they ask me what I was doing.” I’m glad she’s in my corner.
Maria Ressa: One thing that stands out for me about you, aside from how hard you work, is that you’re so personally invested. How far do you let it go, given that you take seemingly impossible cases?
Amal Clooney: Thank you, I’m glad that you feel that way. I definitely work on cases that I feel passionate about. And I don’t agree with advice that I’ve been given over the years where people have said that you shouldn’t get too close to your clients. I do these cases because I believe in the clients. And as you know, I am then the kind of person who’s available anytime and who goes as far as I need to go to try to protect them.
You have to have dogged determination, and you can’t let go because the stakes are so high. You’re coming up against people whose power and existence depends on them continuing to commit serious abuses, and so they’re not going to give up. So we definitely can’t give up on our side.
Ressa: What made you choose to defend journalists and women—to choose human-rights law?
Clooney: I’m responding to what I see happening in the world. A world where the guilty are free, and the innocent are imprisoned—where the human-rights abusers are free, and those who report on the abuses are locked up. As a lawyer, I can do something about that. Or I can at least try. So my work is focused on trying to help liberate victims and prosecute perpetrators—and by extension, our foundation’s work is trying to really do that at scale and globally.
When I choose a case, I think carefully about the ripple effect. I’ve said it about your case: there’s one journalist in the dock, but it’s democracy in your country that’s on trial. What’s driving you to continue to fight your battle is, as you put it, you’re holding the line for others. So I do think about which cases are going to have the greatest impact—not only for that individual but for others who are vulnerable as well.
Ressa: George says that even when you go on vacation that when you wander off, he inevitably finds you talking to a woman looking for justice. Where’s the line between your empathy as a person and your larger strategic goals?
Clooney: I’m guided by what I’m really outraged about and what I think I can actually try to influence. And it may be that I can only influence things one case at a time, but ultimately, the plan is always to try and improve the system.
For instance, I’m now working as a special adviser to the International Criminal Court prosecutor on Darfur, and one of the cases before the court is that of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. If successful, it sends a really important message that a former head of state can be hauled to the Hague and be put in the dock and face his accusers. For the survivors, it’s what they want and deserve. And for the credibility of the court, it’s important that they have a success like that.
The Yezidi cases that I’ve been working on for many years are also an attempt to respond to the worst system of sexual abuse and slavery of women we’ve seen in my lifetime—conducted by the most reviled terror group we’ve faced, and yet, still, there was no systematic response from the so-called international community. It’s just individuals who respond and are able to achieve pockets of justice. This past November, one of my clients became the main witness in the case against an ISIS fighter charged with genocide. She was an illiterate woman determined to confront the man who enslaved her and killed her daughter. Thanks to her, we have the first ISIS fighter convicted of genocide anywhere in the world.
Ressa: The Clooney Foundation is where you take your experience from all your cases and pull up. What is the big problem you’re trying to solve, and how are you going to do it?
Clooney: We call what we do waging justice for victims of human-rights abuses. Because justice doesn’t just happen—you have to wage it; you have to bend the arc toward it. We try to do that by holding those who are responsible to account. So the methodology is to expose, but also to punish and remedy. And it is a result of both my experience and the many years George has also spent working on these issues.
The foundation’s flagship program for women is called Waging Justice for Women. Working hand in hand with local women’s groups and using a data-driven approach, we fight injustice against women through strategic litigation to reform discriminatory laws and increase accountability for gender-based abuse. If you’re going to be focusing on human-rights abuses, then we have to be laser-focused on the abuses that affect the largest victim population—which is half the population of the world. It’s all about trying to level the playing field and making sure that girls can get married when they choose, start a family when they choose, if they so choose, and have a right to education.
We’re starting in Africa, and we were recently involved in a case at the African Court on Human [and Peoples’] Rights challenging Tanzania’s policy of banning pregnant and married girls from school—a policy that prevents thousands of girls from completing their education. There’s enormous potential for this kind of work to be really scaled up and to, hopefully, make an impact for years to come.
Ressa: You identified holes in the system and then looked for systemic solutions. Like when we met at your launch of TrialWatch: it made sense to have outside observers at my trials to report to the world.
Clooney: We’re monitoring trials systematically in Belarus and in places where we see democracy being dismantled like Hong Kong. We’re now in over 35 countries trying to be in these courtrooms where journalists, democracy-defenders, women and minorities are unfairly targeted through the courts. We monitor and grade criminal trials, advocate for the unjustly imprisoned, and develop Global Justice Rankings indexing states’ judicial systems.
Ressa: Despite all this work, I’ve been with you—like when you presented at the U.N. in 2019—and instead of focusing on the substance of what you said, the media coverage was on your outfit. How has being a celebrity, and of course your marriage to George, and some sexist coverage affected you?
Clooney: Marriage has been wonderful. I have in my husband a partner who is incredibly inspirational and supportive, and we have a home filled with love and laughter. It is a joy beyond anything I could ever have imagined. I feel so lucky to have found a great love in my life, and to be a mother—this is how I get my balance.
In terms of an increased public profile, I think all I can do is try to turn the spotlight to what is important. That can definitely benefit some clients. If I am at a work function and reporting of it focuses on irrelevant issues, there’s not much I can do about that. Since I can’t control it, my approach is just not to dwell on it and just get on with my work and my life and hope that attitudes will catch up. And I do actually feel like there is a female solidarity that has built up on these issues where other women will sort of call that out in a way that maybe wouldn’t have happened five or 10 years ago. So attitudes are changing.
Ressa: You said that Amal means hope, and yet when you talk about the cases you’re working, I wonder how you keep going. Where do you find hope, and what’s your advice to young women?
Clooney: It’s the courage of the people I represent. It’s also my students. I see a generation that is not only much more politically engaged than I ever was at their age, but also one that sees themselves as agents of change. That gives me hope because they’re the ones we have to rely on in the future.
To young women, I would say: Reach for the stars and believe in yourselves, and know that the only thing you can regret is not trying. A lot of success is down to luck and hard work, but it’s also down to having the courage to go for it. Even if you don’t know if you can do it. Even if you’ve never done it before. Even if you don’t know anyone who’s done it. Just shifting your thinking away from “Why me?” and instead to “Why not me?”
Ressa, CEO and president of the Filipino news site Rappler, was awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize
Styling by Hope Lawrie
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