Foto van een onderzoeker


Laudatio uitgesproken door prof. dr. F. De Pauw


Professor Thomas BUERGENTHAL

Professor Thomas BUERGENTHAL is professor vergelijkend en internationaal recht aan de School of Law van de George Washington University. Hij behaalde achtereenvolgens het diploma van Bachelor of Arts aan het Bethany College (1957), Juris Doctor aan de School of Law van de New York University (1960), Master of Laws (1961) en Doctor of Juridical Science (1968) aan de Harvard Law School en verwierf het eredoctoraat van het Bethany College (1981) en van de Universiteit van Heidelberg (1988).

Op academisch vlak was hij in 1961 en 1962 verbonden aan de School of Law van de University of Pennsylvania, van 1962 tot 1975 aan de State University van New York, van 1975 tot 1980 aan de University of Texas, van 1980 tot 1985 aan het Washington College of Law van de American University en van 1985 tot 1989 aan de School of Law van de Emory University.

Hij was rechter (1979 - 1991), vice-president (1983 - 1985) en president (1985 - 1987) van het Inter-Amerikaans Hof voor de rechten van de mens.

Professor Thomas BUERGENTHAL werd bekleed met talrijke belangrijke opdrachten op het gebied van de internationale mensenrechten o.m. in het kader van de Unesco en ontving meerdere eervolle onderscheidingen.
Zijn indrukwekkende publicatielijst vermeldt 17 boeken inzonderheid m.b.t. de mensenrechten en het internationaal recht en talrijke artikels die verschenen in internationale juridische tijdschriften. Door de faculteit van de Rechtsgeleerdheid wordt hij als doctor honoris causa voorgedragen, omwille van zijn uitmuntend wetenschappelijk dossier op het domein van het internationaal recht en van de rechten van de mens in het bijzonder.


Thirty years ago, in 1964, the Faculté de droit of the Université Libre de Bruxelles created two courses – one in the French and one in the Dutch language – to explain a legal text which had, as the famous professor of International Law Henri ROLIN once put it, “remained unknown to Belgian lawyers” (“un texte inconnu des juristes belges”). This course, called “The European Convention of Human Rights”, was the first human rights course to be organized in Belgium. The Convention had entered into force for our country in 1955, together with its full system of implementation, but it took many years before Belgian lawyers realised that all persons under Belgian jurisdiction could petition the European Commission of Human Rights and that a European court could even condemn the Government for Human Rights violations.
Eight years later, in 1972, the Law School of the newly established Vrije Universiteit Brussel created a Post-graduate Program on International Legal Co-operation comprising a course on a much wider subject, called “International Protection of Human Rights”. Young lawyers from all over the world would be introduced to the Human Rights protection system as existing within the framework of the United Nations as well as to the regional protection systems in Europe, America and Africa.

All professors teaching International Human Rights Law at that time were in need of a book for classroom use, of a teaching and research tool in that new and promising body of law which they were preparing to study and promote.
Fortunately, the next year, in 1973, an ever since unsurpassed 1402 page book entitled “International Protection of Human Rights”, was published, by two American professors of International Law: Louis SOHN and Thomas BUERGENTHAL. Professor SOHN was awarded an honorary degree by this University in 1990. We now have the pleasure of reestablishing equality between the two by conferring the same award upon his colleague Thomas BUERGENTHAL.

Twenty years have passed since the authors wrote down their conception of Human Rights.

The gradual acceptance of the proposition that human rights are a matter of international concern had in turn provided the impetus for the development of new rules of international law defining in specific terms various individual rights and freedoms; it has also led to the establishment of special institutions to interpret and apply these rules. The result is a substantial and rapidly evolving body of law, both substantive and procedural, that calls for systematic scholarly analysis and for materials to facilitate and encourage its study.

The book has remained fundamental because it made its readers familiar with the doctrines, principles and institutions that International Law developed over the centuries to deal with human rights problems and because it gives an understanding of the gradual process by which it has been developing.

Ever since the publication of this fundamental work International Law in general and particularly International Law governing the protection of the human rights of individuals, have had Thomas Buergenthal’s attention. It has been his sincere conviction that International Law not only governs relations between states inter se and between states and international organizations, but also the relations between states and the individual.

This explains his constant interest for the major realizations of our time in the field of International Human Rights Law as it becomes apparent from his publications:

  • the United Nations Human Rights system;
  • the European system for the protection of Human Rights;
  • the Inter-American Human Rights system;
  • the African system of human and peoples’ rights;
  • the Geneva Conventions and Protocols which codified humanitarian law;
  • the significance of the Human Rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act.

Almost all of Buergenthal’s publications – ten books and innumerable articles – are related to one of these subjects.

Dear Tom: it surprised nobody that you would go through all stages of an academic career at several American universities: as professor of international law, professor of human rights, professor of comparative law, and finally at the George Washington University, where you are the Director of the International Rule of Law Institute.

Disorganized as you are (I quote your own words), you participated in countless professional, governmental and private activities as member, consultant, representative, expert, commissioner, rapporteur, contributor, coordinator in many public and private councils and commissions. These activities concerned International Protection of Human Rights, as well as international education and teaching of Human Rights. No wonder you were elected as one of the seven judges when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights was set up in 1979. Its judges are elected, as the American Convention of Human Rights requires, in their individual capacity from among jurists of the highest moral authority and recognized competence, and who possess the qualifications required for the highest judicial office. During twelve years you played an important role in this newly created Court and even served as its Vice-President and President. As may be expected from a university professor, your knowledge and experience concerning the Inter-American Human Rights system resulted in fundamental publications, indispensable for anybody studying or teaching International Human Rights Law.

Finally, two manuals you published, one on Public International Law and one on International Human Rights should be mentioned here. They are used in many universities all over the world. They provide law students with a concise and up-to-date overview of the subject “in a nutshell”, and are valuable signposts for additional research. All Professors of International Law and of International Human Rights Law are grateful to you for having provided the academic world with these self-contained basic texts devoting a great deal of attention to the international institutional context. We all know that that aspect is actually very confusing to most students.

“The end of the Cold War has brought hope” – I am quoting Louis HENKIN – “of developing additional rights as well as more effective international enforcement. But also, terrible events have made it urgent to develop means of responding to massive human rights violations.”
We note with gratification the gradual processes of change which can lead to remarkable successes, as is proven by the abolishment of Apartheid in South-Africa. On the other hand, not a day goes by without reports of unbearable attacks on the most fundamental freedoms. The World Conference on Human Rights (1993) made it clear that much remains to be done in the field of Human Rights; that more coordination is needed, more efficiency, more awareness, more implementation.
The American Society of International Law has just published a book with a significant title: Human Rights: An Agenda for the Next Century, in which these same issues are discussed.

These points of future action are very much in Professor Buergenthal’s line. For his contribution to their realization, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel has awarded him the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa, expecting him to continue his much appreciated contribution to the gradual development of International Human Rights Law of which the world is in so great a need.

Prof. Dr. F. De Pauw