Mar 23, 2017

Order of Merit for Thomas Buergenthal
(© / Chad Fleschner)
After surviving the Holocaust as a child–first in a ghetto in Poland and then in Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen concentration camps and even a death march–Thomas Buergenthal dedicated his life to the protection of human rights as a judge and law professor. 

Today, Professor Buergenthal, who retired from the International Court of Justice in 2010, serves as honorary president of the Advisory Council of the International Nuremberg Principles Academy. The academy, whose mission is the promotion of international criminal justice and human rights, is housed in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, where the Nuremberg Trials were held from 1945 to 1949. The Foundation was established by the German Foreign Office, the Free State of Bavaria and the City of Nuremberg.

Ambassador Peter Wittig presented Thomas Buergenthal with the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, bestowed by then Federal President Joachim Gauck, in recognition of his life’s work of protecting human rights after his own experience with persecution and loss.

“You have become a close friend of Germany,” Ambassador Wittig said at a ceremony at his residence on February 23. “You chose reconciliation over hatred and you chose law and justice over hatred and despotism. For that, we are deeply grateful. Let me sincerely thank you for your friendship and the unique service you have rendered to my country and the world in your life-long struggle for justice.”

Born in what is today northern Slovakia, Buergenthal went to school in Göttingen after the end of World War II before immigrating to the United States. As a law professor at Georgetown University he also served simultaneously as judge and president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and as a member of the UN Human Rights Committee.

In Germany, Buergenthal served on the advisory board of the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law where he was also a guest researcher. He has also worked personally for Holocaust remembrance in Germany, speaking, for example, at the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück concentration camps in 2005. The city of Göttingen named its central library after Buergenthal in remembrance of Jewish victims of the Holocaust and in honor of Buergenthal’s work for understanding and tolerance. 

In the memoir of his childhood, “A Lucky Child”, Buergenthal writes: “One cannot hope to protect mankind from crimes such as those, unless one struggles to break the cycle of hatred and violence that invariable leads to ever more suffering by innocent human beings.”


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