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What I’ve Learned: Tom Buergenthal’s Lucky Childhood
Comments () | Published October 4, 2011

These events took place 65, 70 years ago. How much do you remember and how much was related to you by a relative or friend afterward?
There are certain things I didn’t write because I wasn’t sure. What is interesting to me is that my memory about a lot of other things that happened later on in life is just not there. My memory is particularly strong about what happened in the camps. Those five or six years stuck in my mind, and the rest faded away. After the war, my mother and I talked about it a lot, and that helped—so we refreshed each other’s memory.

Did you try to erase the memories or hang onto them?
It never haunted me, but it was there. I was always willing to talk about it. But I came to this country at the age of 17—there was so much to do that the past didn’t intrude on my new life. It wasn’t like people coming here in their forties and fifties, having lived most of their lives under terrible conditions and having only a limited future. For me, the future was here. I left the past behind. And it never interested me that much until I thought I better write about it before it was too late.

You seem to have a spirit of reconciliation. I can imagine having a deep desire for retribution.
I believe that while we cannot forgive what happened to us, we certainly can stop the vicious circle of hatred and retribution. Over time, that has made me much more tolerant and appreciative of efforts by people to learn from the past or make amends.

How did your experiences inform your life choices as an adult?
If I’d been good in science, I might have become a doctor, but I think I always knew I wanted to be an international lawyer. I had this naive notion that if you worked in international law you could prevent some of the terrible things that happened to us.

You have a great faith in the ability of the law to prevent these crimes?
I came to believe very strongly that if we had had the institutions for the protection of human rights we have today, much could have been prevented in Germany in the 1930s. I’m not saying that in the 1940s Hitler could have been stopped, but earlier yes. Hitler was quite hesitant at first in implementing his policies. It was all very gradual.

He was testing to see what would be tolerated?
Exactly. And that was in the ’30s. Hitler didn’t start to implement his policy of mass murder in ’33 when he took over—that policy started much later. But if in the period between ’33 and ’37 or ’38 there existed European human-rights institutions and treaties, what followed might never have taken place.

Or if there had been an international criminal court?
Yes. The worst thing was that we had a doctrine in international law that it was for every state to determine how to treat its citizens. The doctrine of noninterference in domestic affairs provided nations with two excuses. One was that they knew they didn’t have to worry about being told to stop mistreating their own people. It also gave nations an excuse not to intervene when they really did not want to. When pressured to intervene, these states thus had a ready-made reply—that to intervene would violate international law. Maybe if that rule had not existed, England, the United States, France, and others might have seriously tried to put pressure on Germany before it was too late.

Since 1948, we’ve had a Genocide Convention and other international treaties. Yet we seem to regularly have crimes against humanity—in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur.
It’s a tragedy that with all the laws on the books we still have these situations. The question one should ask, though, is what would have happened if we didn’t have those institutions. Note that we never write about the genocides that didn’t happen. What is often so frustrating if you work in human rights is that preventive methods work in some countries but not in others. Certain pressures prevent some dictators from embarking on genocide while the same pressures don’t work on others.

What further steps do we need to take as a society to prevent these crimes?
I believe in education for tolerance, for human rights—when you see what has happened in this country, for example, how multiracial the US has become while the opposite is happening in other countries. Racial, religious, and ethnic tolerance is something we have to work on around the world.

There’s also a tremendous amount of ignorance that has to be dealt with, for it is ignorance and gullibility that enables demagogues and hatemongers to build up a following.

Next: How Beurgenthal remains optimistic

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Posted at 09:40 AM/ET, 10/04/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles