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August 15, 2004
Mostly Joel Filartega's line drawings; also includes poster.
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May 16, 2008
Mostly Joel Filartega's line drawings; also includes poster.
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Breaking Silence

The Case That Changed the Face of Human Rights

Young seventeen-year-old Joelito Filártiga was taken from his family home in Asunción, Paraguay, brutally tortured, and murdered by the Paraguayan police. Breaking Silence is the inside story of the quest for justice by his father—the true target of the police—Paraguayan artist and philanthropist Dr. Joel Filártiga. That cruel death, and the subsequent uncompromising struggle by Joelito's father and family, led to an unprecedented sea change in international law and human rights.
The author, Richard Alan White, first became acquainted with the Filártiga family in the mid-1970s while doing research for his dissertation on Paraguayan independence. Answering a distressed letter from Joelito's father, he returned to Paraguay and journeyed with the Filártiga family on their long and difficult road to redress. White gives the reader a compelling first-hand, participant-observer perspective, taking us into the family with him, to give witness to not only their agony and sorrow, but their resolute strength as well—strength that led to a groundbreaking $10 million legal decision in Filártiga v. Peña. (Americo Norberto Peña-Irala was the Paraguayan police officer responsible for Joelito's abduction and murder, whom the Filártigas had arrested after finding him hiding in Brooklyn.)

That landmark decision, based on the almost obscure Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, ruled that U.S. courts could accept jurisdiction in international cases—recognizing the right of foreign human rights victims to sue—even though the alleged violation occurred in another country by a non-American and against a non-American. So fundamentally has the Filártiga precedent changed the landscape of international human rights law, that it has served as the basis for nearly 100 progeny suits, and grown to encompass not only human rights abuses, but also violations of international environmental and labor rights law. Today, there are dozens of class action suits pending against corporate defendants ranging from oil conglomerates destroying the Amazon rainforest to designer clothing companies running sweatshops abroad.

Breaking Silence is a remarkable, consuming story, documenting not only the most celebrated case in the international human rights field—but also the tragic and touchingly human story behind it that gives it life. In 2001, Dr. Filártiga was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and the Alien Tort Claims Act continues to be hotly debated among politicians and lawmakers.

About the Author

Richard Alan White is Senior Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, DC, and former consultant on Latin American affairs for ABC World News. He has worked for Amnesty International, and is the author of The Morass: United States Intervention in Central America and Paraguay's Autonomous Revolution: 1810-1840.


"Breaking Silence deserves widespread reading and use."—Criminal Justice Review


"Richard White was present at the creation of the Filártiga case, and has written a very powerful and moving account of this landmark case. It is a fitting tribute to the courage and commitment of one family, and of a small group of dedicated supporters who stayed the course, and in the end transformed, despite the risks and setbacks involved, the landscape of human rights advocacy."—George Andreopoulos, director of the Center for International Human Rights at the City University of New York, and president of the Human Rights section of the American Political Science Association

"Breaking Silence offers a unique, personal insight into the family behind the most important human rights case in modern U.S. legal history. What happened to the Filártigas, and what they did with their family tragedy, invokes simultaneous emotions of sadness, heartbreak and outrage, but also hope, inspiration and admiration for the courage of the people and the creativity of the lawyers behind this groundbreaking lawsuit. Ultimately, this important book shows that anything can happen when you combine the power of law and the power of people. It is a must read for anyone who thinks that the powers they are challenging are just too powerful—sometimes, just sometimes, there is justice and the good guy does win. "—Katie Redford, codirector of EarthRights International

"Over ten years, I've observed Dr. White's meticulous research methods at work yielding a monumental study on international human rights law and politics. From my standpoint as a human rights educator, Breaking Silence is a triple winner: a highly readable and gripping dramatic thriller, a true story by an historian who witnessed the development of the landmark case from its tragic beginning to triumphant ending; and a book that puts the human into the study of human rights."—Richard Pierre Claude, founding editor of Human Rights Quarterly and professor emeritus of government and politics, University of Maryland

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