Thomas Buergenthal, an international law jurist and human rights defender who witnessed the horrors of Nazi concentration camps as a boy, and oversaw cases that included restoring assets to Holocaust survivors and probing atrocities in Central America by U.S.-backed governments, died May 29 at his home in Miami. He was 89.

His son, Alan Buergenthal, confirmed the death but no cause was given.

Over more than four decades, Dr. Buergenthal had a major role in establishing the framework of international jurisprudence, building off U.N. declarations since the 1960s often called the “International Bill of Human Rights.” In 1992, the United States ratified the core document, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

But Dr. Buergenthal, who emigrated to the United States in 1951, also confronted the paradox that his adopted country — along with some others — refused to recognize the full legal authority of many of the panels he served, including the International Court of Justice, or ICJ, based at The Hague. The United States has long asserted that international tribunals could put Americans, including U.S. troops, in legal peril and put U.S. sovereignty in question.

Dr. Buergenthal countered that the United States betrayed its own principles with an “almost messianic and fanatical opposition” to U.N.-backed institutions such as the International Criminal Court. “What is objectionable,” he said at American University’s commencement in 2002, “is that we are pursuing these policies without giving serious thought to their consequences in undermining the international rule of law.”

A telephone chat in early 1979 changed the course of Dr. Buergenthal’s career. He was teaching at the University of Texas Law School in Austin. His lectures included analyses of the newly created Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which was supported by most nations in Latin America but not the United States, Canada and some other countries in the hemisphere.

One afternoon, a call came from the Costa Rican ambassador to the United States, offering a spot on the court. At first Dr. Buergenthal thought it was a prank by one of his students. He called the Costa Rica Embassy, expecting to be laughed at. “A few months later,” he said, “I was elected to the court.”

Some of the first cases before the court involved allegations of rights abuses by U.S.-allied governments in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras against leftist guerrillas and their supporters. Dr. Buergenthal called the cases “landmark events” in helping establish legal precedents in international justice.

One inquest — the disappearance of suspected government opponents in Honduras — led to completely new interpretation of the burden of proof. Dr. Buergenthal and the other judges on the court recognized the difficulty of finding specific evidence to incriminate state-backed death squads.

“Which is precisely why some governments engage in the practice,” said Dr. Buergenthal, who served on roles in the court from 1979 to 1991.

The court decided that it could consider the overall pattern of disappearances, setting what Dr. Buergenthal called a “rebuttable presumption” of government involvement. That put authorities on the hook to prove they had no role in a specific incident, and a lack of evidence was no longer enough.

In two of the early cases, Honduras was held responsible for people disappeared and presumed dead — setting a bar for future hearings involving alleged state-directed disappearances in Argentina, Chile and elsewhere.

In 1993, Dr. Buergenthal was part of a U.N. commission that found Salvadoran military officers responsible for so-called “dirty war” crimes, including the killing of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 and the killing of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989.

At the International Court of Justice, Dr. Buergenthal was sometimes asked to provide extra help on opinions with U.S.-related cases. Although the United States doesn’t recognize the full jurisdiction of the ICJ, the court at times seeks to use its opinions to potentially influence U.S. policy or legal proceedings.

One case during Dr. Buergenthal’s tenure on the court, from 2000 to 2010, made its way the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2003, the ICJ concluded that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention by failing to tell more than 50 Mexicans charged with capital crimes that they had a right to meet with Mexican diplomats. One of the suspects, José Ernesto Medellín, filed a suit in Texas arguing that his prosecution should be thrown out. The Supreme Court in 2005, on a 5-4 decision, kicked the case back to Texas courts. Medellín, who was convicted of two murders, was executed in 2008 after a second appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court.

On one issue, Dr. Buergenthal broke with the rest of the 15-judge panel. He cast a lone separate view in 2004 when the ICJ issued an advisory opinion over Israel’s separation barrier on the border with the West Bank. The court said that Israel violated international law with the parts of the barrier that crossed into Palestinian territory.

Dr. Buergenthal wrote that he agreed with much of the ICJ’s decision, noting that the wall raised “serious questions as a matter of international law.” He believed, however, that the court did not have enough facts to issue a judgment.

In Zurich, he was vice chairman of the Claims Resolution Tribunal, which examined requests made by the families of Holocaust victims seeking assets deposited in Swiss banks until 1945. Tens of millions of dollars were estimated to be in accounts hidden from heirs by Swiss banking laws.

In his memoir “A Lucky Child” (2007), Dr. Buergenthal said his boyhood struggle to survive during the Holocaust was always infused in his work as a human rights advocate.

“If only because I understood, not only intellectually but also emotionally,” he wrote, “what it is like to be a victim of human rights violations.”

Thomas Buergenthal was born May 11, 1934, in Lubochna, Czechoslovakia (now part of Slovakia), where his family settled after fleeing Germany as the Nazis gained power. His father was trained as a lawyer and worked in banking in Germany. In Lubochna, his parents ran a hotel.

When Germany began seizing parts of Czechoslovakia, the family escaped to Poland in hopes of reaching Britain. War blocked their exit. They were rounded up and eventually shipped to the Birkenau concentration camp, next to Auschwitz, in August 1944.

The young Dr. Buergenthal was picked as an errand boy for a camp commander, a decision that likely saved his life. Some of his jobs included gathering the empty canisters used in the camp’s gas chambers. His father was later sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he perished.

As the Soviet army pushed into Germany in early 1945, Dr. Buergenthal and thousands of other prisoners were put on a forced march to another camp, Sachsenhausen, more than 350 miles away. The Red Army liberated the camp on April 22, 1945. (In 2005, Dr. Buergenthal attended ceremonies at Sachsenhausen with camp survivors marking the 60th anniversary of their liberation.)

Dr. Buergenthal was sent to an orphanage in Poland. A remarkable stroke of good fortune — a clerk who noticed a telegram from the boy’s mother — led to their reunion in her hometown of Gottingen, Germany. She had ended up at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, when it was freed by Soviet forces. At 17, he left Europe for New Jersey, where he stayed with relatives.

“I saw the fact that I survived as a victory that we had won over them,” he told the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2001.

He graduated in 1957 from Bethany College in West Virginia. He earned his law degree from New York University in 1960, and then a doctorate from Harvard Law School.

Dr. Buergenthal served as dean of American University Washington College of Law from 1980 to 1985, and was a professor at George Washington University School of Law from 1989 to 2000 and again from 2010 to 2016.

Dr. Buergenthal’s marriage to Dorothy Coleman ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 40 years, the former Marjorie Bell; sons Robert, John and Alan from his first marriage; two stepchildren, and nine grandchildren.

“What it means to suffer human rights violations is something I feel in my bones,” he said. “I don’t have to be told what happens in a massacre, what it is like to be disappeared or to be tortured. These are not academic subjects for me.”

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