May 2012

Let Your Own "Metaphysical Guilt" Guide You to Act for Others, South African Human-Rights Defender Tells 2012 SCU Law Graduates

SANTA CLARA, Calif., May 19, 2012 — Your own sense of “metaphysical guilt” can be a powerful impetus to defend the rights of others, Paul van Zyl, a key architect of  South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission told the 300 graduating students from Santa Clara University School of Law.

The law school’s commencement took place at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, May 19, in the University’s Mission Gardens.

Van Zyl, who received an honorary doctorate of laws at the event, is the former executive secretary of the famed Truth and Reconciliation Commission of his home country, South Africa, from 1995 to 1998. He helped develop the structure, modus operandi, and operations of the commission, which was charged with investigating and reconciling victims and perpetrators of South Africa’s Apartheid-era crimes.

Speaking before a multi-ethnic crowd of several thousand family, friends and supporters of the 2012 graduates, he recounted his early years as a lawyer in South Africa, joining the anti-Apartheid movement, fighting for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be public as intended, and learning the value of candidly admitting wrongdoing as a means of healing.

He told of his friend and mentor in law Bheki Mlangeni, who was killed by a bomb meant for his client, an Apartheid “hit squad” officer turned whistleblower. 

“Metaphysical guilt has something redemptive about it,” he said. “It turns us into active citizens who protect and care for each other because of a sense of mutual obligation.” 

This year’s graduating class comprised a nearly equal number of men and women, with 30 percent of the class indicating their ethnicity as Asian; seven percent Hispanic; and three percent African-American.

Law school Dean Donald Polden acted as master of ceremonies, and University President Michael Engh, S.J., spoke to the graduates, urging them to “bring justice to the innocent…work for those who are falsely imprisoned and .. give voice to the voiceless and justice to those in greatest need.”

Of the graduating class on Saturday, 21 percent received certificates in various areas of high-tech law; another  eight  percent received certificates in public-interest and social-justice law; and four percent specialized in international law.

  Van Zyl, who is now the CEO of Maiyet, a “double-bottom line” company, is known for pioneering new approaches to human rights protection. In 2001 he co-founded the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), advising countries including Colombia, Morocco, East Timor, and Bosnia-Herzegovina on how to recover from mass atrocity.

He reminded the audience that the guilt that one feels when not intervening to help others when their rights are being violated is a universally valuable impetus to action.

“My work on human rights in over 35 countries across the world has convinced me that there is no such thing as the erosion of rights for only some people,” said van Zyl. “I believe how a country treats the weakest and the worst offers a telling window into its soul, and that legitimizing the erosion of fundamental rights opens a Pandora’s Box. Once the violations begin, they set a precedent, diminish moral outrage, and are seldom confined to that infinitely malleable definition of ‘the enemy’,”

He said such defense is needed even in the U.S., where fear of terror has led to things like government-sanctioned torture, erosion of Habeus Corpus rights, and illegal intrusions on the right to privacy.

Among the awards for outstanding graduates given earlier in the graduation season, student  Nicole Bartz, who led the procession of graduates Saturday, received the Mabie Award for the Outstanding Graduate based on academic performance, scholarly activities, leadership and service roles at the law school and in the community.  Martin Kopp received the ABA-ALI award for his outstanding combination of scholarship, and academic and professional leadership, and Natalie Korthamar received the  Dean's Outstanding Student Leadership Award for  distinguishing herself through her leadership of student organizations.

About Santa Clara University School of Law
Santa Clara University School of Law, founded in 1911 on the site of California’s oldest operating higher-education institution, is dedicated to educating lawyers who lead with a commitment to excellence, ethics, and social justice. One of the nation’s most diverse law schools, Santa Clara Law offers its 975 students an academically rigorous program, including graduate degrees in international law and intellectual property law; combined J.D./MBA degree; and certificates in intellectual property law, international law, and public interest and social justice law. Santa Clara Law is located in the world-class business center of Silicon Valley, and is distinguished nationally for our top-ranked program in intellectual property. For more information, see

About Santa Clara University
Santa Clara University, a comprehensive Jesuit, Catholic university located 40 miles south of San Francisco in California’s Silicon Valley, offers its more than 8,800 students rigorous undergraduate curricula in arts and sciences, business, theology, and engineering, plus master’s and law degrees and engineering Ph.D.s. Distinguished nationally by one of the highest graduation rates among all U.S. master’s universities, California’s oldest operating higher-education institution demonstrates faith-inspired values of ethics and social justice. For more information, see

Media Contact:
Deborah Lohse | SCU Media Relations | | 408-554-5121

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