José Miguel Vivanco’s Background

Dear Editors:

It has come to my attention that your Web site recently posted an article containing defamatory statements regarding my colleague, José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch. The article, by James Petras, titled “Human Rights Watch in Venezuela: Lies, Crimes and Cover-ups” (see, claims that José Miguel was an “apologist,” “propagandist,” “official,” and “functionary” of the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. These charges are completely unfounded and demonstrably false. They are damaging to José Miguel and to this organization. I therefore request that you remove them from your site and post a correction.  

We at Human Rights Watch fully recognize and respect your right to publish critiques of our work on Venezuela or any other country. We believe very strongly in the value of open and vigorous debate of the issues we cover. Indeed, for over two decades, we have actively sought to promote the right to freedom of expression.

Yet we also believe that it is inappropriate to disseminate unfounded, demonstrably false, and damaging allegations regarding an individual’s background and professional activities. It is especially troubling when the charges are as ugly and unsubstantiated as the ones the Petras article makes regarding José Miguel.

José Miguel has never worked for the Chilean government, or any other government, and he has never been an apologist for Pinochet or any other abusive ruler. On the contrary, he has dedicated his entire professional career to promoting human rights and, in particular, accountability for the atrocities committed by the Pinochet regime and other military dictatorships in Latin America.

José Miguel began his human rights career immediately after his graduation from law school in his native Chile in 1983, working for the Catholic Church’s Academy of Christian Humanism to document cases of forced disappearance committed under Pinochet and developing a legal theory to permit prosecution of these crimes as crimes against humanity. Then, in 1986, he joined Human Rights Watch in Washington, where he spearheaded our efforts to expose the abuses committed by Pinochet, while also litigating cases involving forced disappearances in Honduras before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. After a year at Human Rights Watch, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights hired José Miguel as a staff attorney in 1987 to continue his work on the Honduras disappearance cases on behalf of the Commission. In this capacity, José Miguel litigated several landmark Court cases (including the Velásquez Rodríguez case) that would serve as crucial precedent in the prosecution of disappearance cases in Chile and throughout the region. José Miguel left the Commission in 1989 to enroll in Harvard Law School. After obtaining a LLM, he returned to Washington in 1990 to found the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), a nongovernmental organization that has played a key role in helping victims of rights abuses throughout the region litigate in the Inter-American system. In 1994, he rejoined Human Rights Watch as Americas director, his current position, and continued his efforts to promote accountability for Pinochet and his henchmen. After Pinochet’s arrest in London, José Miguel played a leading role in Human Rights Watch’s efforts to convince the Law Lords that Pinochet should be prosecuted for his crimes in Spain.  Upon Pinochet’s return to Chile, José Miguel continued publicly pressing for Pinochet’s prosecution.  A simple Web search would reveal press releases, news articles, and other documentation of these facts.

Again, we respect your right to publish criticisms of the substance of our work. But whatever substantive differences we may have, I am sure you will agree that they cannot justify publishing such defamatory claims. We therefore request that you remove these references from your Web site. In addition, since many of your readers may have been misled by this false information, we ask that you take appropriate steps to remedy the damage that the article has caused, at a minimum by posting a correction in a prominent location on your site and by disseminating the correction to anyone you know to have received the article.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to hearing from you promptly.


Kenneth Roth

Executive Director, Human Rights Watch