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Judge Thomas Buergenthal Tribute
By CSLR | Emory Law | Jun 1, 2023 7:06:00 AM

On May 29, 2023, Judge Thomas Buergenthal passed away at 89. From 1985-1989, Judge Buergenthal was the inaugural I.T. Cohen Professor of International Law and Human Rights at Emory University School of Law. He also directed the Carter Center’s Human Rights Program from 1986-1989. After leaving Emory, Judge Buergenthal taught at George Washington University Law School from 1989-2000. He then served on the International Court of Justice at the Hague, returning to the GWU faculty in 2010 where he taught until his retirement in 2015.

David Blumenthal, retired Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University, penned the following tribute.

Judge Thomas Buergenthal and Archbishop Desmond Tutu both taught at Emory University. Archbishop Tutu, a pastor, activist, and thinker, maintained that, after moments of great injustice such as in South Africa, there must be reconciliation between the oppressed and the oppressors. Hence, his insistence upon the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Judge Buergenthal, a child survivor of the Holocaust, maintained that, after moments of great injustice such as the Holocaust and the violence against civilians in Central America, there must be justice; that is, the judicial execution of punishment for the oppressors. Reconciliation was not enough. Justice required a legally defensible punishment of the perpetrator. Hence, Tom served as President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, participated in the Claims Resolution Tribunal which examined and judged which claims of Holocaust survivors merited, as a matter of justice, return of seized assets by Swiss banks; and insisted that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum create and maintain the Prevention of Genocide program. Justice must mean something. Justice requires action.

But justice is not revenge. Tom’s book about his experience in the Holocaust is horrifying, but it does not call for revenge; it calls for justice. Tom was also the kindest of persons. He revered his mother. He loved his wife and family above all. He always had a kind word for colleagues and students. And always made time for his friends when they came to visit him. My wife and I were privileged to be among his friends and visited him in Atlanta, in Zurich, in the Hague, in Washington, in Geneva, and hosted him and his wife Peggy in our home in Atlanta and in Lausanne. Always, Tom had time for us and welcomed us into his circle. We felt like family.

A gentle giant of justice has left us. May God comfort his family among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. And may Tom’s memory and his passion for justice be a blessing among us, always. Amen.