An Advocate for All

A renowned human rights champion, International Court of Justice Judge Thomas Buergenthal rejoins GW’s law faculty this fall.

June 06, 2010

By Julia Parmley

In 1957, Thomas Buergenthal enrolled in New York University’s Law School because his late father, Mundek Buergenthal, had studied law. But he found himself specifically drawn to human rights and international law for even more personal reasons: his experience as one of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz, the largest German concentration camp.

“It was something that came naturally to me, to try to prevent others from going through what many of us had to go through,” he says.

An international leader and advocate for human rights and international law, Judge Buergenthal is returning to GW Law School this fall as the Lobingier Professor of Comparative Law and Jurisprudence. He will retire from the International Court of Justice, where he has served as the American judge since 2000. GW Law announced Judge Buergenthal’s return to the university May 25 at a reception in The Hague honoring his life and work, which both President Steven Knapp and GW Law Dean Frederick M. Lawrence attended.

Judge Buergenthal says he is excited to return to GW, where he taught international and human rights law before his election to the International Court of Justice. “I taught at GW for 10 years and liked it very much,” he says. “I enjoyed the faculty, found the students very good and I liked Washington, so there was no reason I should go anywhere else!”

At GW, Judge Buergenthal plans to draw on his 40 years of experience in international and human rights law. “I share my experiences quite a lot because in almost any course I teach I’ve had some practical experience, that makes it more interesting and brings a different perspective,” he says.

Judge Buergenthal’s long career has included endowed professorships at the University of Texas and Emory University and a deanship at American University’s Washington College of Law.

From 1979 to 1991, he served as judge and president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where he helped end the practice of disappearances in Honduras and helped secure the government of Guatemala’s compliance with a court order ending executions of human rights activists by special tribunals. He is the only U.S. citizen to serve on the court.

Judge Buergenthal also served as a judge on the Inter-American Development Bank’s Administrative Tribunal, as commissioner on the United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador, and was the first U.S. citizen to be elected to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Calling his period on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights “one of the most interesting” times of his life, Judge Buergenthal says “he felt like a pioneer” as he was one of the first seven judges elected. “It was a great experience, to establish and lay the foundation for a new court,” he says. “We were the first court to decide the disappearances cases and established first precedents to deal with them. We also worked a lot in the area of free speech and due process of law. It was quite an exciting period.”

“I look back on the court with very special sentiment about what we achieved there,” he adds. “It’s much harder to achieve something on a court that’s been in existence for 60 years than on one you’ve just established—it’s the pioneering aspect that makes a difference.”

On the United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador, Judge Buergenthal worked with the former president of Colombia and foreign minister of Venezuela, along with a staff of approximately 25 lawyers and experts, to investigate human rights violations in the country, including the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

The “principal judicial organ” of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice was created in June 1945 and consists of 15 judges elected by the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council. The court resides in the Netherlands’ Peace Palace.

Judge Buergenthal calls this most recent judgeship a “special experience,” saying he learned a “tremendous amount” about international law during his 10 years on the court.

“On almost a daily basis, you have to confront new legal problems that have never been dealt with before,” he says. “We learned how international law should be applied to whatever complicated issue was at hand and in the process we make new law.”

Judge Buergenthal earned a Bachelor of Arts from Bethany College in West Virginia, a J.D. from New York University and an L.L.M. and S.J.D. from Harvard University.

He was the co-recipient of the 2008 Gruber Prize for Justice for his contributions to the promotion and protection of human rights. Upon receiving the award, he established a scholarship fund to support law students.

Already, widely published in the field of international and human rights law, in 2009 Judge Buergenthal published a memoir, A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, which has been translated in more than 10 languages. He says he always knew he would write the book for his children but when he began, he realized it should have a larger distribution.

“It’s very important that those of us who survived [concentration camps] write about it so the experience can be remembered,” he says. “Surprisingly, it was the easiest book I ever wrote as I didn’t have to do any research; it came out of my head. I had moments when I had a hard time writing certain episodes and I had to stop and go back a day later. But on the whole it just flowed.”

In 1973, Judge Buergenthal co-authored the first international human rights law textbook in the United States. The subject is now taught in almost every law school in the country.

“There’s now much greater compliance to human rights law than ever before, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have violations of human rights,” he says. “We’re very slow learners. We thought after the Holocaust that there would never be genocide, but it has come again. It helps that we have human rights institutions, the Internet and television, as we now hear about violations in real time, which often helps to prevent or reduce the effects of violations. Progress has been made but it’s not enough, and I’m not sure it will ever be enough.”

Being closer to their children and nine grandchildren was the impetus for Judge Buergenthal and his wife, Peggy, to move back to the United States. “I’m reaching an age when you want to enjoy your grandchildren as long as you can. Even though life in The Hague is very pleasant, it’s not one’s country,” he says. “It’s been a great experience, but I’m looking very much forward to coming back to GW. Although what will be different now is that students will all have computer on their desks. I will have to adjust my teaching method!”

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