Martin Garbus '59 wins Fulbright Award for global human rights efforts

Martin Garbus ’59, a longtime proponent of human rights and free speech and a 2004 Fulbright Scholar who taught law to students, government officials, judges, and legal professionals in China, received the One to World Fulbright Award for Global Leadership at the 2012 Fulbright Awards Dinner on May 23.

Giving introductory remarks, Fulbright Scholar Anton Botha cited not only Garbus’s record of First Amendment-related Supreme Court arguments and civil rights advocacy in the U.S., but also his extensive global efforts to make a difference, including his representation of Soviet nuclear-physicist-turned-dissident Andrei Sakharov, Czech dissident and eventual president Václav Havel, and future president Nelson Mandela in Botha’s native South Africa, to which Garbus traveled in the 1970s to observe the trials against the anti-Apartheid African National Congress.

Martin Garbus '59In his acceptance speech, Garbus recalled working with Havel to write a constitution and set of laws for a unified Czechoslovakia—ultimately a fruitless endeavor—as well as collaborating with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1980 to draft media protection laws, which also came to naught. Yet there had been a “tiny victory,” Garbus said, arising from his monumental efforts in Chile to observe the trials of a dozen generals who had supported the late president Salvador Allende. Despite many obstructions, Garbus made it into the courtroom as the only outsider and spoke with the defendants, including Brigadier General Alberto Bachelet. At the end of the trial, Garbus delivered a final message from Bachelet to his daughter, Michelle. The officer was ultimately convicted, imprisoned, and tortured, dying while still in prison.

“I left Chile feeling awful,” said Garbus. “The genocide continued. What I did felt meaningless.” But more than 30 years later, Michelle Bachelet became Chile’s first female president. Just this spring, Garbus said, Bachelet initiated a meeting to tell him how important his presence at the trials had been: “Her father had told her of the human and warm contact that I had with the defendants.  It showed the 12 defendants, and other Allende supporters, that they had not been totally abandoned. She saw, in my presence at the trial, two things, she said: a commitment from people outside of the United States government to reach in and help even if the government would not do it as a country, and she saw something else—someone had pierced the Pinochet killing machine. It was like a pinprick of light in a dark hole. The Pinochet regime was four months old, and was seemingly less impregnable. This taught her, at 21, of the power of the smallest resistance.” The incident showed the significance, Garbus said, of “small acts.”

Garbus also spoke about a letter he had helped Andrei Sakharov write and deliver to Jimmy Carter just after his 1977 inauguration. Sakharov’s letter asking Carter to speak out on behalf of Soviet and Eastern European political prisoners elicited an affirmative response from Carter that created waves in foreign policy circles.

“My message is perseverance,” said Garbus, currently a partner at Eaton & Van Winkle. “You go in hoping for a victory. At best, a reaction. As I stand here receiving this honor, I see a victory. Thank you for recognizing small acts.”

Posted on June 15, 2012