Oral History

Thomas Buergenthal describes differing perspectives on international justice

Judge Thomas Buergenthal was one of the youngest survivors of the Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. He immigrated to the United States at the age of 17. Judge Buergenthal has devoted his life to international and human rights law. A former chairman of the Museum’s Committee on Conscience, he is currently the Lobingier Professor of Comparative Law and Jurisprudence at the George Washington University Law School and served for a decade as the American judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. He served as a judge and president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and of the Administrative Tribunal of the Inter-American Development Bank, and was the first US national to be elected to the UN Human Rights Committee, a member of the UN Truth Commission for El Salvador, and vice chairman of the Claims Resolution Tribunal for Dormant Accounts in Switzerland. With a unique perspective shaped by his experiences as a Holocaust survivor and international jurist, Judge Buergenthal has taught at several leading law schools and written more than a dozen books and numerous articles on international law and human rights.


I'm always fascinated by the fact that in the United States we look at international justice very differently from the way international justice is looked upon in other countries. In other countries, international justice is often looked upon as the best justice that can be obtained following say a terrible civil war or terrible dictatorship, because there is a sense that there's no domestic mechanism that is legitimate enough or credible enough to address all of the crimes that were committed. So for example truth commissions as one example of institutions that are established, or ad hoc tribunals. In the United States on the other hand we have, with some justice, great faith in our judicial institutions and we look with great suspicion on judicial institutions, international ones, which are not home grown, that is to say, they don't have only American judges on them. That's an interesting philosophical distinction which produces also some of the difficulties that the U.S. has with international criminal tribunals, and while in the U.S. we don't understand why other countries are such strong supporters of international tribunals, or for that matter international human rights institutions, to many countries international justice is really critically important for them to have a sense that what they've experienced and what they might experience will be addressed properly and impartially by an international body. They don't have that faith in their domestic institutions.


  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum

This content is available in the following languages

Thank you for supporting our work

We would like to thank Crown Family Philanthropies and the Abe and Ida Cooper Foundation for supporting the ongoing work to create content and resources for the Holocaust Encyclopedia. View the list of all donors.