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  • Breaking Silence, The Case That Changed The Face of Human Rights
  • Richard Pierre Claude (bio)
Breaking Silence, The Case That Changed The Face of Human Rights,1 by Richard Alan White (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press 2004), 320 pp. [ISBN 1-58901-032-0, $26.95]

This is a book about a landmark international law case written from a participant-observer point of view by an historian who was involved in a human rights tragedy at every stage of its development. The focal point of the book is the important case of Filártiga v. Pena-Irala2 which for the first time, imported internationally defined human rights norms into US jurisprudence.

The author is a Senior Fellow of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (Washington, DC) who was conducting research in 1976 on Paraguay's history where he befriended the family of Dr. Joel Filártiga in Asunción. White explains, "As a trained historian, I happened to be on the scene before, during and after what turned out to be an historical event," acknowledging "these improbable circumstances" enabled him to detail the physician's courageous saga taking him and his family from one end to another of the Western Hemisphere. For the many lawyers, students and activists who are familiar with the famous ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 1980 and for those not so informed, the author's objective is to present the human in "human rights law" by providing the reader with a riveting account of the case of Filártiga v. Pena-Irala, now routinely appearing in human rights and international law textbooks.

The Filártiga principle, as now understood, stands for the proposition that torture is a tort within the meaning of US law informed by the standards of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a component of international customary law. As such, the Alien Tort Claims Act, part of the first judiciary Act of 1789, applies so as to authorize civil law suits by an alien residing in the United States against another alien for torture, recognized as among the most serious of all human rights violations. As a result, deposed dictators, death squad leaders, rapists and torturers from overseas should expect no safe haven from the reach of civil justice in the United States.

Joelito Filártiga was the seventeen year-old son of an internationally famous physician, Joel Filártiga who ran (and still runs) a clinic for the 50,000 campasinos in the Ybycuí Valley, Paraguay. Because, in the 1970s, he routinely gave free medical care to the poor he came under suspicion by the right wing dictatorship then in power in that small landlocked "Southern Cone" country. The physician further provoked the government of General Alfredo Stroessner by publicly speaking with admiration of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care."

Ironically, it was the doctor's innocent only son who suffered most at the hands of the dictatorship. Because Filártiga was an outspoken critic of the government's derelict public health policy, officials suspected him of subversive activities [End Page 787] and left wing connections. In 1976, young Joelito was abducted by police Inspector Américo Peña, who assumed the boy could be forced to betray his father. Instead, he died of cardiac arrest during the hideous torture interrogation.

Thereafter, Filártiga and his family cooperated with Amnesty International human rights workers in Paraguay. Richard Alan White, then visiting in his capacity as an historian from the University of California, Los Angeles documented the case and transmitted information about the politically motivated torture-murder to Amnesty International's research headquarters in London. The Amnesty Secretariat and its medical officer took an interest in the murdered boy's case under its mandate to act on behalf of those prisoners of conscience who suffer torture in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The author makes clear that Amnesty International (AI) double checked the facts, making sure that the Filártigas...


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