José Zalaquett was a Chilean lawyer with extensive international experience in human rights. He was a professor of human rights at the Law School of the University of Chile and of ethics and government at a post-graduate program on public policy at the same university. He taught at Harvard University Law School and other foreign universities. He also taught annual courses at the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights in Costa Rica.
After the 1973 coup in Chile, Prof. Zalaquett headed the Human Rights Department of the Committee for Peace in Chile, later known as the Vicaría de la Solidaridad, a church-sponsored organization that provided legal assistance to thousands of political prisoners and their families in Chile. For this work, he was imprisoned and expelled from Chile in 1976 and not allowed to return until 1986. During his exile, he was closely involved with Amnesty International, as chairman of the International Executive Committee, the governing body of the organization, and in other capacities. He served as a 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. He was a member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS between 2000 and 2005, and was president during the period 2003-2004. He served on the board of Chile's National TV station and on the boards or consultative committees of several other human rights, humanitarian and legal organizations.
Prof. Zalaquett conducted human rights missions to numerous countries in Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, working in particular on transitional justice issues. As a consultant, he advised governments, inter- and non-governmental organizations in various countries on human rights and legal issues. He wrote extensively about human rights in books, specialized journals and newspapers. He organized many international conferences on human rights and humanitarian issues.
In April 1990, he was appointed by the President of Chile to serve on the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, a body responsible for a report to the nation about the worst human rights abuses committed during the Pinochet regime (1973 to 1990). In 1999, he was appointed to the Mesa de Diálogo in Chile, a series of government-sponsored roundtable discussions about pending human rights issues with human rights lawyers and the military participating.
Prof. 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).