January 31, 2011 — Alexandra Arriaga, a human rights adviser who graduated from the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences in 1987, has been named the U.Va. Women's Center's 2011 Distinguished Alumna.
Arriaga will receive the award at a luncheon that is part of the U.Va. Alumni Association's program for "Celebrating the Women of the University: 40 Years of Full Coeducation, A Century of Accomplishments," being held at U.Va. March 25 and 26.
Arriaga also will make remarks during the Women's Center Spring Open House on March 25, from 1 to 3 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
Since she graduated from U.Va. with a degree in Latin American studies and a minor in Russian studies, Arriaga has held leadership positions related to human rights in Congress, the White House and non-profit organizations. She is currently an independent consultant advising organizations on international human rights issues and is active in support of children with special needs.
"She has been an advocate for human rights for most of her working career, and specifically for women's rights, primarily in Africa," said Wayne Cozart, vice president of development and director of the Jefferson Trust of the U.Va. Alumni Association, who chairs the Women's Center Advisory Council's nominating committee for the award. "She is seen as a leader in defining women's rights, and that commitment was a strong reason for the committee to choose her."
After graduating, Arriaga became director of the bipartisan Congressional Human Rights Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1987 to 1995.
From 1995 to 1999, Arriaga was senior adviser to the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor at the U.S. Department of State, and also served as executive director of the secretary of state's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad and as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Next she served for almost three years as special assistant to President Clinton and chief of staff to the President's special envoy for the Americas.
She then joined Amnesty International USA, working there from 2001 to 2008. Arriaga was a chief liaison representing Amnesty International's human rights concerns to U.S. and foreign government officials. She also focused on international women's rights. The Treaty for the Rights of Women, known as CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) agreement was adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly and entered into force in 1981. The CEDAW organization has worked to get countries to adopt the treaty, and the U.S. is the only Western nation that has not done this, as of 2011.
Arriaga's interest in human rights was sparked early in her life.
The child of a Chilean mother and Argentinian father who worked for the United Nations, Arriaga traveled throughout Latin America as she was growing up. In a 2003 interview in the U.Va. Women's Center publication, Iris: A Journal About Women, Arriaga said the family lived in Chile in the 1970s during some of the worst political periods and when President Carter's administration engaged in more helpful foreign relations.
"I have seen firsthand the repression and human rights abuses that take place," she said.
While a student at U.Va., she served on the resident staff, the Honor Committee and as class president of the College of Arts & Sciences. She has said these roles helped her learn the responsibility of having an impact on individual lives.
Before enrolling at U.Va., Arriaga took time off from school to follow another passion: ballet. She was a scholarship recipient and dancer with the Joffrey Ballet in New York in 1981 and 1982.