Oral History

Thomas Buergenthal describes the charges brought at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg

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.


It's interesting that when you look at Nuremberg, and look at the crimes that were charged, and look at how some of them have developed or evolved, for example the crime against humanity, in Nuremberg the crime against humanity was seen as a crime that could only be committed in wartime, because some of the Allies insisted on that and they felt that there wasn't really enough international law precedent to go beyond that. Today it's generally accepted that crimes against humanity can be committed in peacetime as well and that wartime is not necessary. I think also some of the Allies, the United States for example if I'm not mistaken, preferred the crime against peace because of course there were quite a number of conventions in the 1920s, the Briand [ Kellogg-Briand, 1928] agreement and some others, that had outlawed war, and so that provided a basis for trying war criminals who were held to be responsible for starting the war, planning the war, and so forth. One of the reasons also for the focus on Crimes against Peace was that it was felt that there was more law at that time on that subject than on some of the other crimes, with the exception of war crimes themselves, because by that time already war crimes had been sufficiently well developed in various conventions on that subject. But Crimes against Humanity and of course genocide, those issues were still very much at an early early stage.


  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum

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