Former judge and Holocaust survivor Thomas Buergenthal '60 discusses international human rights in Emilio Mignone Lecture

Addressing questions of human rights solutions and reconciliation, the seventh annual Emilio Mignone Lecture on Transitional Justice assumed a less traditional format on December 12 when Thomas Buergenthal ’60, a former judge of the International Court of Justice at The Hague and one of the youngest Holocaust survivors, took part in a question-and-answer session with David Tolbert, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). The lecture was co-sponsored by the ICTJ and NYU Law's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice.

Thomas Buergenthal '60 (photo credit: International Center for Transitional Justice)Now a professor at George Washington University Law School, Buergenthal has published more than a dozen books, including A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, which has been translated into more than a dozen languages. Explaining to Tolbert why he had waited until he was in his 70s to write about his childhood tribulations, Buergenthal said, “I really needed the perspective of many, many years…. I think the book represents more the type of experience that I feel made me who I am. If I had written it five years after, it would have been the wrong sort of book. It wouldn’t have been the me that I am today.” To this day, although Buergenthal can write about the Holocaust, he cannot read or watch any other works with that freighted theme. He recalled that, as a student in postwar Germany, he was taught nothing in history class about either the Holocaust or World War II.

After graduating from NYU Law as a Root-Tilden Scholar, Buergenthal pursued a legal academic career, including a stint as dean of American University’s Washington College of Law. Before serving on the International Court of Justice, he was a judge of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, of which he was president for a term, and also sat on the Inter-American Development Bank’s Administrative Tribunal and the United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador.

As an expert on international and human rights law, Buergenthal advocated for regional human rights courts across the globe. His former Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica, has Latin American jurisdiction, and two other regional courts, the European Court of Human Rights and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, have parallel missions, but outside of those three regions, such courts do not yet exist.

Regional human rights tribunals “create a local commitment to human rights,” Buergenthal argued, “and get people used to the idea that there are international tribunals that watch governments.” He pointed to Asia, which has no regional human rights court but is subject to certain UN human rights treaties that, he said, lack the kind of legitimacy a regional authority would wield.

Buergenthal spoke of another human rights difficulty as he turned to the example of Latin America, which has fewer overt dictators than it once did but whose democratic models can be questionable. “The dictatorships were in many ways concerned about their positions,” he said, “whereas these countries say, ‘We’re elected. We can do anything we want to.’…. There’s no reason today why, just because you’re democratically elected, you can’t be violating human rights, and they do. Including, incidentally, the United States.”

Turning to potential solutions, Buergenthal stressed the importance of both tribunals and truth commissions, having participated in both types of bodies. “Courts cannot really tell the history of a terrible conflict,” he said. “Truth commissions can describe the history of what went on and the causes—if it is a good truth commission—in a way that courts cannot do…. Truth commissions don’t take the place of courts, but I don’ t think courts take the place of truth commissions, either.”

Recounting a conversation with a fellow concentration camp survivor a few years after his release, Buergenthal recalled, “We started to discuss what the consequences are of hatred, and where it leads to, and do we really want to go through the cycle again and again and again?”

In contrast, Buergenthal invoked the story of the recently deceased Nelson Mandela, whose life “shows what can be done with a commitment to reconciliation after terrible conflicts,” he said. “Germany is one example, and South Africa another. And then you see countries that haven’t figured it out yet, that still haven’t done it. It’s hard to believe why some still haven’t apologized for what they’ve done. And the failure to apologize just breeds more hatred, and it all continues. Whereas if they simply said, ‘Terrible things happened. It was a different generation. We apologize. Let’s get together and be friends.’...”

Watch the full video of the lecture (1 hr, 23 min):

Posted on December 17, 2013

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