The Inaugural José Siderman Human Rights Lecture Introduction

Posted by on Mar 17, 2016 in Newsletters

by Amanda Goodman*

Thursday, February 25, 2016

It is both a great pleasure and a great privilege to introduce to you, Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Professor Méndez is also the Professor of Human Rights Law in Residence at American University, in Washington, D.C.

A native of Argentina, Professor Méndez’s career has been committed to defending human rights and advocating for those without a voice. Due to his legal representation of political prisoners in Argentina, that country’s military dictatorship arrested, tortured, and detained Professor Méndez in 1976 and 1977. After his release from this torture and subsequent expulsion from Argentina, Professor Méndez moved to the United States, where he continued to advocate for human rights, founding Americas Watch, an organization that together with Helsinki Watch, later became Human Rights Watch. Professor Méndez also served as the Executive Director of the Inter-American Institute in Costa Rica, and was the Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame. He was the President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States in 2002. From 2004 to 2007, he acted as Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, while simultaneously serving as the President of the International Center for Transitional Justice. From 2009 to 2010, he was Special Advisor to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

Before his current residency at American University, Professor Méndez taught International Human Rights Law at Georgetown Law School and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and was a Scholar-in-Residence at the Ford Foundation in New York. He also teaches regularly at Oxford University’s Master’s Programme in International Human Rights Law.

In light of Professor Méndez’s esteemed and heroic background, he is truly the most befitting speaker at this year’s inaugural José Siderman Human Rights Lecture. Southwestern Law School is grateful to the Siderman family for its generosity in establishing the José Siderman Human Rights Lecture and the José Siderman Human Rights Fellowship at Southwestern Law School. The Siderman family established this annual lecture series in order to support and publicize human rights scholarship and highlight the work of individuals who play essential roles in the global struggle to uphold human rights. As Editor-in-Chief of the Southwestern Journal of International Law, I am particularly grateful to Professor Méndez for the submission of this year’s lecture for publication as an article in our Journal, this Spring.

The Siderman family’s establishment of the annual Human Rights Lecture and Human Rights Fellowship at Southwestern honors the legacy of José Siderman, who combatted the anti-Semitism and terror of the Argentine military government of 1976-1983.  José Siderman was a successful Argentine businessman who was kidnapped and tortured by this military dictatorship. In a landmark human rights case decided by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1992, the factual record “paint [s] a horrifying portrait” of the inhumane and violent reign of an anti-Semitic military dictator who ruled Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s. [1] In 1976, 65-year-old José Siderman was “blindfolded and shackled” by “ten masked men carrying machine guns” and then was beaten and tortured for seven days. [2] This militia’s “tools of torture” included “an electric cattle prod, which [was] used to shock José  [Siderman] until he fainted. As they tortured him, the men repeatedly shouted anti-Semitic epithets.” [3] These “cruelties” were inflicted upon José Siderman solely “because of his Jewish faith.” [4]

But José Siderman did not surrender. In the United States, he brought the first successful case ever against a foreign government for violating human rights. In his case before the Ninth Circuit, this Court of Appeals held that the acts of official torture against José Siderman violated customary international law, stating,

We conclude that the right to be free from official torture is fundamental and universal, a right deserving of the highest status under international    law. …The crack of the whip, the clamp of the thumb screw, the crush of the iron maiden, and, in modern times, the shock of the electric cattle prod  are forms of torture that the international order will not tolerate. To subject a person to such horrors is to commit one of the most egregious    violations of the personal security and dignity of a human being. …No state claims a sovereign right to torture its own citizens.[5]   

On behalf of the Southwestern Journal of International Law and Southwestern Law School, I would like to thank the Siderman family for their generosity in establishing this Human Rights Lecture series, and for Professor Méndez’s time and thoughtfulness in preparing his lecture and upcoming article. Without further ado, UN Special Rapporteur, Juan Méndez.


* Amanda Goodman is Editor-in-Chief of the Southwestern Journal of International Law. She will begin her legal career as an associate at Dentons US LLP in Fall 2016.

1 Siderman de Blake v. Republic of Argentina, 965 F.2d 699, 723 (9th Cir. 1992).

2 Id. at 703.

3 Id.

4 Id.

5 Id. at 717.