"I no longer took notice of fear, much in the way a surgeon becomes accustomed to the sight of blood."
José Zalaquett began his career as a founder of the modern human rights movement worldwide, campaigning while a law student for Salvador Allende. Upon Allende’s election as president of Chile in 1970, Zalaquett served a two-year term as cabinet minister, which he left for a post at the university. Shortly thereafter in 1973, General Augusto Pinochet launched a bloody coup which forcibly ousted the elected government. Thousands were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Many more went into exile. In the aftermath, the Catholic Church, one of the only entities remaining with a degree of political space, approached Zalaquett to create a Committee for Peace to help the victims of the coup. Under Zalaquett’s leadership, the committee, later known as the Vicaría de la Solidaridad, was the foremost human rights organization operating in Chile throughout the dictatorship, from 1973 to 1990. The Vicaría defended hundreds of detainees and helped family members of the disappeared file habeas corpus documents demanding the whereabouts of their loved ones. In retaliation for his work, Zalaquett was imprisoned in 1975 and 1976, and expelled in 1976. In exile he continued his human rights work at Amnesty International, serving as chair of its executive committee. Ten years later, he returned to Chile. In 1990 Zalaquett was named as a member of the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, and with his nine colleagues wrote a report on the fate of the victims of the Pinochet regime. As such, he became an internationally respected authority on truth and reconciliation, and has since advised similar commissions on three continents. From 2001-2005 Zalaquett served as a Commissioner at the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, including a term as its Chairman. Zalaquett is currently a Professor of Human Rights at the University of Chile's law school.
In the 1970s, I was an official in the Allende government. After a couple of years, I left politics and went back to the university, serving as deputy vice president for academic affairs. Then the coup occurred. The Palace of Government, a symbol of our freedom, was bombed. It was a devastating blow, a strategic move to take power and to paralyze the opposition.
The military immediately began to round up people. Because the prisons were not large enough to accommodate the many thousands taken prisoner, they were put into a soccer stadium. Congress was dissolved and the military burned the electoral rolls, forbade political parties and trade unions, and established a curfew, which lasted for twelve years.
There was nothing left in this barren institutional land in 1973, except for the government and the churches. Those who knew that I was a lawyer approached me and asked for my help in finding their imprisoned or disappeared relatives. Learning that the churches were organizing to provide some relief, I joined them. When I say "churches," I am referring to the Catholic Church (the largest in any Latin country), five Protestant denominations, and the rabbi of the Jewish community in Chile.
They organized the Committee for Peace that would later be transformed into the Vicariate of Solidarity, a human rights organization which became internationally famous. My first task was to go around the country—a country as long as the U.S. is wide—checking out the situation, visiting prisoners, and trying to establish branches of the nascent committee.
At that time, the Catholic Church was well respected by the military because Chile is a Catholic country. I carried credentials issued by Cardinal Silva, from Santiago. This opened many doors. Local bishops would receive me and put me in contact with the local military commander. Because of this, I was able to visit several prisons and camps.
When I returned to Santiago, I was asked to form a proper legal department to defend the prisoners. We soon had a staff of more than seventy people and began to establish legal strategies, mainly habeas corpus writs. Although we lost virtually every case, we knew that we had to continue. The process itself was important.
Under normal circumstances, a case can be won if the law is on your side and the lawyer is competent enough. This was not the case in Chile. The Supreme Court proved itself to be fearful of, and subservient to, the military junta from the outset. The junta kept it in place, to be able to claim that it was respecting the independence of the judiciary. Yet it was obvious that legal proceedings were merely cosmetic: the courts would invariably rule in favor of the government.
Despite this, we could still use such legal proceedings to help people and to denounce what was going on. For the families of victims it was important to have a lawyer by their side. Also, through the legal process we could second-guess the secret police’s intentions. If they told the courts they had never arrested the person in question, we knew they probably intended to make him dissapear, and we had to mobilize all the national and international pressure we could muster to try to stop that. The legal ritual also helped build a historical record. Since we kept copies of all transcripts, we had thousands of official files which we photocopied and sent to the United Nations, the OAS, or Amnesty International. Foreign correspondents from The New York Times, The Washington Post, or Le Monde could examine them. In addition, we had recorded eyewitness accounts that proved to have tremendous documentary value. Seventeen years later, this information served as the cornerstone of the Truth Commission’s work.
However, our work did not go unnoticed by the military junta. By the end of the seventeen-year period, more than fifty of us had spent time in prison. One committee worker was killed and many more were exiled.
Yet compared to the fate suffered by others, we faced lesser risks. The secret police followed a certain rationale. Those who posed the greatest threat to the regime were the well-trained and ideologically conscientious left-wing militants; they were marked for death or torture. Their lawyers, instead, could be subject to imprisonment or exile. Had I been at greater risk, I don’t know if I would have proceeded as I did. I had a commitment to justice but I do not claim to have innate bravery. Rather, I’m very normal and try to shun danger when possible. In the end, whatever courage I displayed was an exercise in learning how to live with fears. After a while, I no longer took notice of the fear, much in the way a surgeon becomes accustomed to the sight of blood. The important thing is not to let your heart grow cold while keeping your head cool. If you let your head become as impassioned as your heart, you run unnecessary risks and do not serve people well. Finding this balance requires a good deal of time.
The authorities arrested several of us in 1975, although they never charged us. The junta then asked Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez to disband the Peace Committee, and when the cardinal complied, those of us who had been arrested were released. Then Cardinal Silva reorganized our group under the Vicariate of Solidarity. I went back to work in this new office and was arrested again. I was taken directly from prison to the airport where the guards even buckled my seat belt and sent me into exile.
Where did my impulse for this come from, you ask. Since I can remember, I have rebelled against the misuse of power, as have others in my family. Although my father and mother were both loving and just people, in their time they did not have to wrestle with situations of political emergency. However, all four of my sisters have. One was in Lebanon serving as a war nurse, two married Nicaraguans and fought against Somoza, and the youngest was part of the Chilean underground working to oppose Pinochet. After her husband was killed, this sister spent a year in prison. I hold in the highest moral regard those who do not conform to arbitrary power and are always humane and never cruel. Mean-spirited people are obsequious with power and are tough with the meek.
Of the seventeen years of military rule, I spent ten in exile. In 1986, the ban was lifted and I was allowed to return to Chile. Before this time, my passport bore the letter "L," indicating that I was to be arrested if caught trying to reenter the country and sent back to the place from where I had come.
When I returned to Chile, I continued to work on questions of political transitions and past human rights violations. I had started addressing these issues in 1984, when I visited Argentina on behalf of Amnesty International. I talked to President Alfonsín and his government, and met with the mothers of the disappeared and with the Truth Commission that President Alfonsín had set up to account for their fate. I was in Uruguay the following year, to talk to President Sanguinetti, lawyers, judges, and relatives of the victims. In 1987, I went to Uganda and in 1988 to the Philippines. When, in 1990, there was a change of government in Chile, President Aylwin asked for my advice. He established a Truth Commission and I became a member of it. The commission produced a voluminous report in 1991, accounting for nearly three thousand people killed and disappeared. I have continued to work in this field, writing, teaching, and advising human rights organizations or governments on questions of political transition and human rights.
We call democratic transition a process by which the country attempts to build a just political system after a period of civil war or dictatorship which has left a legacy of war crimes, human rights violations, and deep divisions in society. Every step of this transitional process takes on symbolic value and has lasting effects. Truth is important. Justice is important. Forgiveness is, too—but not blanket impunity.
I believe that there are two levels of forgiveness. On the individual level, a person may forgive his offender. This is a very intimate process in which governmental policies can not intervene. Personal reconciliation or forgiveness is a heart-to-heart matter. Community clemency, which refers to laws of amnesty or pardons, is altogether different.
Community forgiveness is legitimate when it contributes to reaffirm the community laws and values which have been broken or violated. This is the rationale behind the doctrine of forgiveness in all major religions—Christian, Jewish, Islamic. They place a higher value on pardon than on punishment. But community pardon requires that some steps be taken. In the Christian tradition, absolution is not granted unless there is an admission of wrongdoing. The individual must atone for sins that have been committed and make reparations. In this manner, it is as if the sinner is putting back the brick he took from the moral building. This reaffirms the community values and the process of moral reconstruction and the culprit may be forgiven. But if the individual refuses to acknowledge his guilt, then punishment is necessary to subdue his stubborness. On the contrary, a blanket measure of amnesty, without acknowledgment, only serves to validate human rights abuses. There is no truth, no repentance—just cynicism.
South Africa helps to demonstrate this point. After several decades of apartheid, involving countless politicians, judges, or policemen, tens of thousands of people were potentially liable for prosecution. Prosecution of this magnitude was impossible and it could jeopardize the goal of the democratic transition, that is, to achieve a united, reconciled society. However, if nothing was done, the transition would have condoned the past and insulted the memory of all who suffered for so long. Given this situation, South Africa chose to grant amnesty to those who disclosed the truth about the crimes and their involvement in them.
Concerning the acknowledgment of misdeeds, it’s not possible to peer into the hearts of people and discover whether their contrition is genuine or whether it is calculated. This does not really matter. Acknowledgment is not a subjective question, but rather a civic ritual. The important thing is the external, solemn manifestation of acknowledgment. A record is thus established which is left in the annals of the nation to enlighten future generations. This is the meaning of forgiveness at the social level. At the personal level, of course, it is a very intimate affair.
As a member of the Truth Commission, I went throughout the country interviewing thousands of people. Although I rarely heard a call for sheer, absolute vengeance, many people demanded that their violators suffer the full weight of the law. This was fair enough. The commission consistently heard that Chile should never again allow these abuses against humanity to happen. Many people said that they didn’t want revenge or to create a situation in which more children would be orphaned. Most wanted to know who to forgive. Anonymous forgiveness, you see, is not very human. The victim needs to know who committed the crime so that he or she may forgive and live in peace.
For me, courage signifies the determination to act according to your values. It is a daily exercise in addressing the natural trepidation that we have to confront and to learn how to live with fear. In the Peace Committee we had shared a sense of togetherness, we supported and encouraged each other. Heroism is something different. I reserve this word for those who brave any danger in the pursuit of their ideals, even without the support of others.
I cannot claim to have suffered inordinately in prison. Rather, I suffered mostly while in exile because I was only able to see my two daughters twice a year. My daughters understood that despite my circumstances, they remained the most important part of my life. At one point or another, both have told me they are very proud of me. This is very important for me. However, at times I wished that I would have done things differently, knowing what I now do about the reality and consequences of being exiled. I am still torn apart and wish that I could have been more a part of their early lives. Sometimes I feel I should have spared myself for them rather than run the risks I faced. But then again, I could not have done otherwise. This has been an emotionally wrenching question for me, one that has been a constant until this very moment.
After returning to democracy, Chile had to face the question of moral reconstruction. Although transition was difficult, the country did not have to build democracy from scratch. Rather, it could rely on traditions of justice and the rule of law that had been established in the past.
The Truth Commission was able to accomplish a great deal. By accounting for the disappearances and deaths of nearly three thousand people, it exposed the Chilean system of human rights abuse and established a global truth. It is no longer possible to deny that these people were unjustly killed. This is very important. Justice has been done in a number of cases involving key people. Compensation was provided and society acknowledged the truth.
Yet there are some unfinished tasks. They are now being addressed by a government-sponsored series of roundtable discussions involving eighteen people. Participants include high-level military officials, human rights lawyers, religious leaders, and community leaders. The debates have been highly publicized in the press and have been closely followed by civil society as a whole. This initiative was made possible after the arrest of Pinochet in London. Two main issues are being dealt with: how to find the remains or account for the fate of nearly one thousand disappeared prisoners; and how to get the armed forces to publicly acknowledge the wrongdoings of the military regime, so as to prevent the abuses from ever happening again.
Chile has yet to complete its transition to democracy. Nonetheless, the country has learned something in the process, namely that everybody is endowed with fundamental human rights which override all differences. Politics remain contentious. However, the sharp polarization that characterized the old system has dissipated. There is no longer a sense that individuals, whether they be suspected subversives or members of the bourgeois class, can be eliminated to serve a greater purpose or ideal. It has taken Chile many years to come to this consensus. The memories of human rights abuse are still vivid and it often seems that old hatreds will be reignited, but a fundamental degree of political and social tolerance has begun, at least, to prevail.