It would be difficult to overstate Peter Weiss’s contributions to international human rights law. He became active in CCR early in its history and served on the board for nearly five decades, litigating numerous cases and shaping who we are today in innumerable and invaluable ways. His work has shaped the course of international law and has inspired thousands of lawyers throughout the world.
A refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, he came to the U.S. in 1941 and went on to be involved in virtually every major human rights issue of his lifetime, from the dismantling of Nazi business cartels to the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War to seeking accountability for U.S. torture (under numerous administrations), using the principle of “universal jurisdiction.”
In 1977, Peter led the CCR team that sued Henry Kissinger for the State Department’s complicity in the detention and death of American journalist Charles Horman during the 1973 Chilean coup. The case brought unprecedented attention to the U.S.’s role in the coup and helped declassify critical documents. Peter continued to work with Joyce Horman to press the U.S. and Chilean governments to investigate and address Charles’s murder, an effort that led to indictments against officials from both countries in 2011 and convictions for two Chilean officials in 2015.
In 1979, working with the Center’s Rhonda Copelon, Peter took what was then an obscure federal law, the Alien Tort Statute, and used it to hold a Paraguayan official accountable inside the U.S. for the torture and murder of the 17-year-old son of a Paraguayan dissident. The rest, as they say, is history. Filártiga v. Peña-Irala ushered in a new era in human rights law, spawning a legal movement for transnational justice and accountability. The ATS bar, an entire new field of law, came into being and has grown and flourished in the wake of the Filártiga victory. Peter was also instrumental in expanding the possibilities of the ATS’s reach, particularly to hold corporate actors accountable for gross human rights violations abroad.
Together with Cora Weiss, his partner of 60 years, a longtime antiwar activist, and president of the Hague Appeal for Peace, Peter has made impressive contributions toward the elimination of nuclear weapons and the development of international law on the issue. He helped found and served as the president of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, and he is one of the founders of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA). His work with IALANA led to the International Court of Justice’s 1996 statement that the use of nuclear weapons would violate international law.
Throughout his extraordinary life, Peter has been a visionary who not only believed in but brilliantly worked for a world in which human rights are taken seriously. In his lifetime, and in no small part influenced by his work, international law has been transformed from a field concerned with state power and diplomatic relations to a tool for justice and the recognition of human rights.
Today Peter Weiss turns 90! Join us in celebrating Peter and consider making a contribution in his honor.