Amnesty International mourns the loss of a human rights legend, professor José Zalaquett

José Zalaquett was a prominent lawyer and academic, who fought for human rights, truth and justice worldwide.

He initiated his human rights work as a law student campaigning for Salvador Allende in Chile. Upon Allende’s election as president in 1970, José Zalaquett served as cabinet minister, which he left for a post at the university. In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet launched a violent military coup which forcibly ousted the elected government of Allende and imposed a military dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. In that period, thousands of people were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.

In the aftermath of the coup, José Zalaquett founded the Committee for Peace to help the victims of the military regime. 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. The Vicaría defended hundreds of detainees and helped family members of the disappeared to demand legally the whereabouts of their loved ones. In retaliation for his work, José Zalaquett was imprisoned in 1975 and 1976, and sent into exile in 1976.

He left Chile with two military officers walking him all the way to his plane, where they sat him down and buckled his seatbelt. He moved first to France and then to the USA, where he joined Amnesty International to demand with many other Chilean exiles an end to Pinochet's dictatorship and raise awareness internationally about the situation in his home country. Pepé, as he was known, became Chair of the International Executive Committee of Amnesty International, and later its Deputy Secretary General.

José Zalaquett was a prominent human rights lawyer who leaves behind an enormous legacy. His time with Amnesty International, as a Chair of the international Board and later as a Deputy Secretary General, was a gift for us. His wisdom and passion to fight for the rights of people have been an inspiration for Amnesty's movement
Sarah Beamish, Amnesty International’s Chair of the International Board

Ten years later, he returned to Chile. In 1990 José Zalaquett was appointed to 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, advising similar human rights commissions on three continents. From 2001-2005 José served as a Commissioner at Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, including a term as its Chairman.

He was also member of the International Commission of Jurists and of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Transparency and Public Probity, and a board member of the Chilean chapter of Transparency International. José Zalaquett conducted human rights missions to numerous countries in Africa, the Americas, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, working on transitional justice issues. He wrote extensively about human rights in books, specialized journals and newspapers.

He was a prominent professor at different universities. José Zalaquett received honorary doctorates from the University of Notre Dame and the City University of New York. His awards include a MacArthur Foundation award (1990 to 1995), the UNESCO Prize for the Teaching of Human Rights (1994), the B'nai B'rith Human Rights Award, and the National Prize for Humanities and Social Sciences (Chile, 2003).

“José Zalaquett was a prominent human rights lawyer who leaves behind an enormous legacy. His time with Amnesty International, as a Chair of the international Board and later as a Deputy Secretary General, was a gift for us. His wisdom and passion to fight for the rights of people have been an inspiration for Amnesty's movement,” said Sarah Beamish, Amnesty International’s Chair of the International Board.

Everyone at Amnesty International would like to express our deepest condolences to Pepe Zalaquett's family, colleagues and community. He has left an immense legacy that will continue to guide our struggles for human rights.

Rest in Power, Pepe!

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Duncan Tucker: duncan.tucker@amnesty.org