Justice tab

2008 Justice Prize

Thomas Buergenthal

Judge Thomas Buergenthal was born in Czechoslovakia in 1934 and emigrated to the United States after World War II. One of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen, he earned a B.A. from Bethany College, the only school to which he applied that would grant him a scholarship in spite of his lack of traditional schooling. Thereafter he received a law degree from NYU, as well as a Master of Laws and Doctor of Judicial Science from the Harvard Law School. When the Inter-American Court of Human Rights was established in 1979, the United States had not ratified the American Convention on Human Rights and so was not eligible to nominate a judge. Costa Rica, however, nominated Judge Buergenthal, then a law professor at the University of Texas. Today he is still the only U.S. citizen to have been a judge on that Court. During his tenure, the Court addressed the Honduran disappearance cases, as a result of which this practice was effectively brought to an end in that country. The Court also secured the government of Guatemala’s compliance with a Court order to stop the execution of human rights activists and rendered pioneering decisions relating to freedom of expression, the protection of human rights during national emergencies, and due process of law issues.

Judge Buergenthal initiated and led the process that resulted in the founding of the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, a leading institution devoted to human rights promotion, research, and education in Latin America. As its president, he was able to bring together diverse partiers – attorneys, judges, police, military – and help defuse their political differences to safeguard human rights. Since 1991, he has been honorary president of that organization. In the 1970s, he chaired the Human Rights Committee of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and represented the United States on UNESCO committees dealing with human rights matters. He also served on several U.S. delegations sent to meetings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In 1992, he was appointed by the UN Secretary-General to investigate human rights abuses in El Salvador occurring between 1980 and 1992. And, in 1994, he became the first U.S. citizen elected to the UN Human Rights Committee, which oversees the enforcement of the rights guaranteed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. While chairman of the American Bar Association’s Human Rights Committee, Judge Buergenthal forcefully advocated U.S. ratification of international human rights agreements. He was also the first full-time chairman (1997-2000) of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, a role in which he campaigned against genocide and crimes against humanity in different parts of the world.

Judge Buergenthal was the Lobingier Professor of International and Comparative Law at the George Washington University Law School and presiding director of its International Rule of Law Center. He served as dean of the American University Washington College of Law and has taught at the SUNY/Buffalo Law School and the Emory University Law School, in addition to the Texas University Law School. He has received honorary degrees from a number of European and American universities, including most recently an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from NYU. A prolific author, Judge Buergenthal co-authored (with Louis B. Sohn) the first American law school course book on international human rights law, which led to the introduction of international human rights courses and seminars in American law schools. His memoir, A Lucky Child, has been published in Europe and will be available in the United States in 2009.