“We Are Writing a Kind of Sacred Lay Book: Interview with Jose Zalaquett” –
My January 2012 Article in the Monadnock Shopper
On Saturday, March 3rd, Keene will be hosting the 4th annual New Hampshire Culture of Peace conference, to be held at Keene State College. In preparation for this upcoming conference, I would like to share with you excerpts from an interview I had with José Zalaquett, affectionately known as Pepe by his friends and colleagues. José Zalaquett is a Chilean human rights lawyer who has dedicated his life to helping heal countries from human rights abuses. He has served on the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, been Deputy Secretary General of Amnesty International and participated in human rights boards in his home country of Chile as well asSouth Africa,Uganda, and formerYugoslavia, among other activities.
Here are some of his thoughts gleaned from our discussion:
Me: “Tell me about your vision of the development of human rights post WWII.”
JZ: “I believe that ever since the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the whole international community has been writing chapter by chapter a kind of sacred lay book. Of course, this is a long-term effort, but if we look back we can see that we have made a lot of strides. It is a book of ethics more than religious beliefs, it is a book that can be shared by everybody and be accepted by all. But since September 11th, the growth of the human rights idea, which had been constantly advancing since the aftermath of WWII, is slowing down and even regressing because the hyper-power, the power with the capability to eradiate its power and influence was hit, and when something really hits the interests of the United States, it becomes almost instantly a world problem as well.”
Me: “As you look at the human rights situation in the world today, would you consider yourself more an optimist or a pessimist?”
JZ: “As I look back after having been involved in human rights work for four decades, I see that we have come a long way, there is no doubt about this. Whatever optimism I may display however does not deny that we have this black seed in our common human soul that is capable of the worst that is conceivable, all the worst when it is shrouded in ideology and takes advantage of technology. I have no illusions and human rights work makes you loose whatever innocence you may have had – the dark side of human nature exists and it is a dangerous beast.
On the other hand, the optimism I draw upon is from the other side of human nature, which is getting organized to fight our black seed. This side is more aware, has more knowledge and more organization than ever. Still, the beast is not going to surrender easily; you are still going to have this evil.
This is the sort of optimism I mean; it is not a naïve optimism in which you believe that somehow a new kind of world is emerging in one or two generations. It will be a long time for the concept of human rights to bear fruit, and there is always the risk of regressing, of going backwards. I believe that we are right now at such a point of inflection, and we have to be extremely careful. We are at a moment when the success of human rights will be tested and, if not dismantled, at least undermined to some extent.
Nevertheless, I still insist that optimism is not guess work, optimism is the resolution to work towards that goal, not to just assume it will be achieved by some unknown forces or by the weight of history. You have to become part of the way and optimism is part of that way.”
I find his insights – carefully gleaned from years of human rights work – both insightful and inspiring. While hopeful, he also sounds caution about expecting human rights to just “happen” without deep struggle to oppose the “dark side of human nature,” as he puts it. Thanks Jose!