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

Are you as optimistic as your father?
I think I am. One has to be an optimist in the human-rights field. Think of the many wars fought in Europe, of the animosity between Germany and France, and then reflect on how things have changed in Europe. Who would have thought that possible before World War II? Of course, many terrible things are still happening in the world, but there are also important advances.

Do you believe in God?
I don’t believe in a personal God. I think everybody has to believe in something, but not necessarily in a God who is there watching over us.

Did you believe in God at a certain point?
I came from a family that was not religious but that considered itself very much Jewish, as I do as well.

So it wasn’t like you went through the camps and that shook your faith?
If I hadn’t gone through the camps, I probably would have made a conscious effort to think about religion. But my experience made that topic uninteresting to me. I think it’s wonderful that people who have my experience can believe. I wish I could, but I can’t.

I remember that you haven’t read any books or seen any movies about the Holocaust.
I saw the first part of Life Is Beautiful but then realized what it was all about. Friends told us, “You have to see this new movie—it’s really good. ” But when I saw the railroad cars, I had to get out.

What do you feel about the US attitude toward international law?
It’s sad we are not perceived anymore as being in the forefront of the struggle for human rights. I’m talking even in terms of just self-interest. We have a tremendous self-interest in a world in which international law exists and is adhered to, and we behave sometimes in a way that is counterproductive in achieving that result. And we are paying a price.

I’ll give you an example. While I served on the International Court of Justice, we decided a case involving 53 Mexicans on death row in various US states. They had not been informed that they had the right under a treaty to which the US and Mexico are parties to seek help from the Mexican consulate. We held that they were entitled to a review of their convictions and sentences to determine whether the failure to provide them with that notice prejudiced their rights under the treaty.

Two of these individuals have in the meantime been executed without receiving such a review. The Supreme Court has held that the decisions of the ICJ in these cases are binding on the United States under international law but that only Congress has the power to give effect to them. More than five years have passed, and Congress has not acted. Then we are surprised that Pakistan or Iran violates similar treaty obligations involving Americans.

What have you learned about life?
I’m a great believer in forcing oneself to be tolerant, which I think is the key to a better world. And to be patient. When we are young, we are terribly impatient with progress. My Harvard law professor, a great scholar, used to say that one could not expect international law to solve all problems rapidly. It was more like building a wall one brick at a time.

This article appears in the October 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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