Zalaquett balances idealism, realism in face of atrocity

April 23, 2010, 1:05 a.m.

“The important thing is not to let your heart grow cold while keeping your head cool.”

Zalaquett balances idealism, realism in face of atrocity
(MASARU OKA/Staff Photographer)

It was with this assertion that Helen Stacy, a senior lecturer in law, introduced José Zalaquett, Chilean lawyer, legal scholar and human rights defender, at his lecture on Thursday evening.

The quote, spoken by Zalaquett in a previous interview, was an apt way to acquaint the audience with a man who, despite being exiled for 10 years and having encountered thousands of stories of oppression and mass atrocity, demonstrated a mastery of balancing idealism and realism — all while maintaining an evident sense of morality and empathy.

“I do believe that law and ethics correlate a lot,” he said. “They are in my view like overlapping circles…and that area of overlap may be more or less considerable.”

Most of Zalaquett’s lecture focused on transitional justice and the various options for repairing and reconstructing a nation in the aftermath of mass atrocity. Zalaquett is renowned for his work defending human rights in his home country during General Augusto Pinochet’s oppressive regime. Having served on Chile’s National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Zalaquett has first-hand experience with the importance of acknowledging atrocities and revealing the truth — however grim it may be.

“The idea that these atrocities may be left in the dark is repugnant to basic moral principles,” he said.

Stanford history Prof. James Campbell and political science Prof. Terry Karl provided commentary on Zalaquett’s lecture. Both sided with him on the importance of truth and recognition post-atrocity. However, all three also agreed that there are certain restrictions on truth’s ability to prevail and on the capacity of post-conflict societies to both uncover and subsequently handle such knowledge.

“One of the things that alarms me is that the more normal truth commissions become and the more normal some qualified amnesty provisions become…the more difficult it becomes to bring persecution to perpetrators of mass atrocity,” Campbell said, highlighting, as all three speakers did at some point during the event, one of the commonly-cited problems of such situations.

Dealing with complex issues of ethnic cleansing, mass atrocity and genocide is difficult and it appears that the general consensus on the matter is that there is no ideal solution.

Zalaquett depicted the transitional justice dilemma as necessary and promising, yet did so in a realistic framework.

“It’s a human endeavor, and human endeavors fail more than they succeed. Which is all the more reason to try over and over again,” he said.

This acknowledgment of some of the political and logistical restrictions that limit post-atrocity negotiations was one thing that students most appreciated about the lecture.

“This guy is amazing…He is one of the first people who acknowledged the idea that you have political constraints in post-conflict scenarios, and you have to deal with it,” said Cristina Brandao, a student SPILS fellow in the law school’s masters program. “This is, in my opinion, what makes him so important… somebody has to say this.”

Another part of the talk that appealed to many in attendance was the way in which Zalaquett spoke of acknowledgement. He emphasized that there is knowledge, and there is acknowledgement. In her comments after Zalaquett’s presentation, Karl added that such acknowledgement is particularly difficult for big powers like the United States that have been complicit in many different human rights violations.

“I really liked his distinction between acknowledgment and knowledge,” said Lila Kalaf ‘10. “We know that our government does some pretty messed up things all the time, but we don’t acknowledge it. And the step between knowledge and acknowledgment is so huge for Americans…it probably causes a lot of upheaval because once you acknowledge something, it usually starts to require action.”

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