Skip to main content

Past, Present and Future

In the White House and beyond, alumna Alex Arriaga works for human rights

Alexandra “Alex” Arriaga (Col ’87) knew her parents would be frantic. Chilean officials had called an emergency curfew, this time during the teenager’s dance class. She ran into the crowded streets.

People clamored for buses; authorities turned water hoses on those who did not move fast enough.

Amid the chaos, Alex Arriaga managed to hail a cab that took her safely home.

Scott Robinson

That scene—and variations of it—would play out again and again in the late 1970s in Chile, where her father worked for the United Nations. Arriaga took note of the armed guards on morning walks to school and the stops by authorities who demanded documentation during her family’s frequent travels to Argentina, where thousands of political dissidents had disappeared.

It is no surprise, then, that Arriaga has tackled issues of human rights violations around the world—from torture and ethnic genocide to forced child marriage and the systematic rape of women in war zones—for the past 28 years. She has had prominent positions in the White House, the U.S. Capitol and with Amnesty International, and is now a partner in her consulting firm, called Strategy for Humanity, where she uses all she has experienced to advise like-minded organizations. “Human rights,” Arriaga says, “is in my DNA.”

Her mother was a Chilean-born legal aid attorney whose Jewish family left Turkey during World War I to avoid being forced to fight on the front lines with other religious and ethnic minorities. Her father was an Argentinian whose family had fled their native Spain during that country’s civil war.

Arriaga’s parents came to the United States as adults; work took them back to South America, their daughter in tow. “As a child, you don’t really know the full extent of what’s happening. But you recognize when adults are anxious and fearful,” she says.

Her parents’ work in human rights—and the violations she witnessed up close—instilled in Arriaga a sense of responsibility. “Those with the capacity to care and act should, even in small ways,” she says. “Small acts can have a big impact.”

She entered the University of Virginia in 1982, majoring in Latin American studies with a minor in Russian studies. There, a religion class on human rights and human values moved her, as did former associate dean of students Sybil Todd, who taught women to take on leadership roles and responsibility.

Arriaga became class president and a member of the Honor Committee, an experience that nudged her closer to her life’s work. “The Honor Committee taught me the idea of consequences and fairness, of taking on an issue and not being a bystander. That translated into the human rights arena; it’s important to stand for principles and to stand up for people,” she says.

After graduation, she went to work for then-Rep. Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor who founded the Human Rights Caucus. By the time Arriaga left for the White House in 1995, she had helped grow the fledgling caucus to a bipartisan majority that took on dozens of issues in more than 100 countries.

She next went to work for the Clinton administration, serving under John Shattuck, the first international diplomat to interview survivors of the genocide in Bosnia. The evidence he amassed—which included the rape of women held in facilities—would ultimately lead to NATO’s intervention in that war-torn country. For the first time, rape was described as a war crime.

She was one month into her work with Amnesty International when she saw a low-flying plane over Washington, D.C., on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The tragedy that unfolded that day would define Arriaga’s next eight years with the human rights organization, which worked with U.S. leaders to help define the lines between national security and personal liberties, interrogation techniques and torture.

These days, she cannot think about the future without thinking about the past. She remembers the relief of her family that day in Chile when she made it safely home amid the quickly called curfew. What she saw and experienced gave her an appreciation for life in the U.S. and readied her for her life’s work.

She considers all the work that yet needs to be done. “We have a long way to go in uncovering some of those injustices and horrifying abuses taking place,” says Arriaga.

She is going to be a part of it.