Profiles in Prevention

Jaime Alejandro Godoy Tellez


Jaime Alejandro Godoy Tellez is the head of the United Nations System Department in the Human Rights Division of the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and an alumnus of the 2015 edition of the Latin American Raphael Lemkin Seminar.

What has inspired you to work in the field of genocide and mass atrocity prevention?

I have served as the Head of the United Nations System Department in the Human Rights Division of the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 2012. Nevertheless, my motivation in respect to human rights has been a guiding force throughout my entire life. I was born and raised under the civic-military dictatorship that shook the foundation of my country. My family, like many others, suffered the effects of the government’s oppression and capriciousness. However, the education that I received from very early on always prioritized a certain optimism in life along with a sense of social responsibility to confront and learn about the past in order to improve the present. This allows for a better understanding of our differences, which in turn allows us to build positive and lasting relations. I taught myself that while the pursuit of responsibilities is important, it’s equally important to think of the actions that will help us construct better societies.

Prevention is thus, for me, the best context in which to connect the past, present, and future. It allows me to combine my legal background with my interest in advancing human rights. Prevention is dynamic and permits constant nourishment of the ideals that we wish to see in our communities. Additionally, working on the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities allows us to maintain a holistic view that does not ignore factors that drive large-scale violence, such as discrimination and violence. By working towards the eventual eradication of these causes, we are preventing genocide.  In a sense, we are transmuting the horrors of the past into hope for the future. It allows us to stay alert because, faced with the smallest oversight, history can repeat itself.

What long-term actions and policies do you believe are the most effective in the prevention of mass atrocities?

My belief is that prevention is a duty, an agreement between states and our communities. It’s not only a proclamation or a declaration of good intentions. Indeed, those are important, but prevention requires us to take a step further. It requires planned and systematized work on a daily basis that presents itself over time.

Education on human rights and prevention is one of the first measures that must be adopted. It must be incorporated in scholastic curricula as well as in the regular training of public officials, police officers, and members of the armed forces. Preventing mass atrocities means preventing the downward spiral of violence that precedes them. There are many phases of transgressions that contribute to mass atrocities. Through education, we can achieve a global comprehension of the significance of prevention, including the ways and places in which it manifests.

Second, a design that takes into account institutions and plans of action with definite objectives would permit the installation and evaluation, on a permanent basis, of the work of prevention in our countries. Conceptual tools and international directives help in this sense. An example is the national mechanisms used for the prevention of torture, whose establishment was enabled by the optional protocol of the United Nation’s Convention Against Torture. Advancing the institutionalization of prevention is essential and the Office of The Special Adviser on The Prevention of Genocide, the Latin American Network for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities, as well as the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation have each played a decisive role in continuing to do so.

Mr. Tellez (second from left) at the 2015 Latin American Lemkin Seminar

What has made you the most proud of your work with the Latin American Network for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities?

The Latin American Network creates a space for dialogue and mutual learning between our countries, our institutions, our visions, and possibilities for action as public servants or officials. To successfully carry out prevention, we need to dialogue, to understand our particularities, our obstacles, and to come to an agreement regarding our shared challenges.

It is to our collective benefit when we allow our truths, best practices, and ideas to be shared and intertwined. The training seminars of the Latin American Network allow us better familiarity with, and understanding of, the history of our societies and the atrocities suffered, while expressing ourselves under the freedom permitted by Chatham House Rule. This learning process has been necessary to deepen our involvement. Specifically, identifying where to focus our national efforts at the alert of our institutions, where the necessities are always greater than the existing capacities.

The Latin American Network is built upon the practical knowledge to promote solidarity through collaborative efforts and the exchange of experiences by providing technical assistance and support to national or local actions under its supervision. Even in the case of my country, with more than 40 years of experience in transitional justice and a permanent commitment to the search for truth, justice, reconciliation, and reparations, we still have challenges ahead. This is not very different from the other member countries of the Network.

Advance knowledge allows us to make steady progress. Work in prevention requires us to recognize our role and new possibilities in the context of the history of our respective countries. It has been especially motivating to find, at meetings of the Latin American Network, representatives from the most diverse institutions sharing these ideals. That is, sharing the motivation to develop and discuss concrete actions and methods with which we can motivate our new institutions to become a part of this work. In my country, the Minister of Foreign Affairs is the focal point of the Latin American Network and we are very proud of the Carabineros de Chile, our police force. They accepted our invitation to participate in the activities of the Network at its inception. This has contributed to our objective of continuing education, strengthened their synergy with the human rights institutions of our country, and allowed for these goals to be shared with the Network.

We are also very happy that, this previous May, the culmination of the second cycle of the Raphael Lemkin Training Seminar for the Latin American Network took place in Santiago, Chile. It permitted us to share with our members not only the experience of our country in reexamining our pain from human rights violations of the past but also our achievements and our hopes for the future. We are very grateful for the invaluable collaboration of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, as well as the Park for Peace at the Villa Grimaldi for the opportunity to conduct guided visits that highlighted the “power of place” contained within and allowed for a better understanding of the history of my country. These experiences allowed us to continue to advance and amplify the scope of the Network’s endeavors.

What advice would you give to a new government official who has just entered the field of genocide prevention?

Many motivations can exist to drive an interest in the field of genocide prevention. All of them are worthwhile and orient us towards the search for more suitable actions to promote and implement within our respective professional fields on a daily basis. It is important to know the history of genocide, to approach it in the most faithful manner possible and without prejudice. In this respect, visiting my country’s different sites of memory and talking to officials and their associates has been very important.

Equally, visiting the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau has profoundly moved me. The experience of confronting humanity’s worst atrocities has mobilized us. It allows us to understand that, beyond the origins of the deplorable atrocities that took place, there is always the possibility that history can repeat itself unless we remain conscious that it is our responsibility to prevent its reappearance.

For me, this has been fundamental: recognizing that we have a vital responsibility to avoid new atrocities, to keep ourselves alert, to contribute towards the creation of appropriate and sufficient awareness and capacity. We must not remain in contemplation or indifference, but instead be part of the action. For this, we must dedicate concrete and permanent efforts. Each one of these efforts, no matter how seemingly insignificant, are actions that have a multiplicative effect. Prevention is a dynamic undertaking that must be waged on a daily basis. It must be shared by each one of us.

I am grateful for this interview, which, by asking me to share my motivations, has injected me with renewed energy to continue working on the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities. It’s our responsibility to prevent history from repeating itself.