'Dedicated himself to reconciliation and for human rights'

Auschwitz survivor turned ICJ judge Thomas Buergenthal dead at 89

International law specialist lamented that despite lessons learned since 1945, the massacres in Rwanda, Cambodia and in Darfur showed society’s unabated capacity for barbarism

Thomas Buergenthal. (Screen capture/YouTube)
Thomas Buergenthal. (Screen capture/YouTube)

BERLIN — Thomas Buergenthal, an Auschwitz survivor who became a judge with the UN war crimes court in The Hague, has died aged 89, the German city where he lived after the war said Tuesday.

The government of Goettingen, whose Thomas Buergenthal Centre houses the city library, said in a statement that he had “tirelessly dedicated himself to reconciliation and for human rights his entire life.”

Buergenthal was born in then Czechoslovakia in 1934 to a Jewish family that was forced to flee to Poland when the Germans invaded.

Their odyssey would take them to a ghetto, two work camps and the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he was separated from his relatives as a young boy.

“He fought for his survival in the camp and on the death march to Sachsenhausen,” another Nazi concentration camp, which was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945, with Buergenthal one of the youngest survivors.

A year later, Buergenthal was reunited with his mother in her birthplace of Goettingen where the two lived until 1951.

After completing his schooling in Germany, he emigrated to the United States where he studied law.

A specialist in international law and human rights, Buergenthal served as a judge on the International Court of Justice in the Hague from March 2000 until his resignation in September 2010.

He was the sole dissenter in a key non-binding ICJ ruling in 2004 that a barrier built by Israel in the West Bank was illegal.

Buergenthal said the decision did not seriously consider victims of “repeated deadly terrorist attacks in and upon Israel proper coming from the occupied Palestinian territory.”

In 2005, he attended ceremonies at Sachsenhausen with camp survivors from around the world marking the 60th anniversary of their liberation.

He said that despite the lessons learned since 1945, the massacres in Rwanda, Cambodia and in the Sudanese region of Darfur showed society’s capacity for barbarism.

“Today ‘never again’ often means ‘never again, until the next time,'” he said.

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