Oral History

Thomas Buergenthal reflects on the value of truth commissions

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.


In my view, the value of a truth commission is that it can establish a credible picture of the historical elements that contributed to the crimes that were committed. You simply cannot try people for 40,000 rapes, for example. But you can have a truth commission that can record that and have that accepted so that history is not continuously rewritten in the future by those who have an interest in changing the reality. So the truth commission to me is critical for the evolution -- peaceful evolution -- of a country that has gone through terrible things like El Salvador and Guatemala or South Africa have gone through. But of course it's at the same time important that there exist an international tribunal or some other method to bring at least the major criminals to justice, for the deterrent effect


  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum

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