Oral History

Thomas Buergenthal discusses whether it is ever too late to seek 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 think in the abstract for example if you look at the Milosevic trial and say "This has gone on for years. Does this serve any purpose?" I suppose in the abstract the answer is that it should be avoided. On the other hand, when you then look at what happened in the Milosevic situation, this is really the first time we have a former head of state before an international tribunal. And we have to learn from it. And we couldn't have anticipated all the problems that have been created in this case. Obviously, it's not a good idea that a trial should take that long, that the defendant should be allowed to really play all the games that are being played. At the same time, to try to hurry it at this point, that would be a big mistake. But we can learn from it and I think in the future we have to come up with ideas and methods to prevent these lengthy delays and to prevent a defendant to just do what Milosevic has been doing, without at the same time denying him his due process rights. There is a balance there, but the delay here is too long. And it looks as if justice delayed is justice denied. The reality of course just having him in the dock for all these years is already justice. So I am not sure that this example is an example of justice denied, in the eyes of the victims. I think the victims would like to see him convicted but they do get great satisfaction I am sure from just seeing him there.


  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum

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