As a teenager heading home from synagogue on a crowded Atlanta bus, Stuart Eizenstat failed to break with 1960s segregationist norms and did not give up his seat to an elderly black woman. Eizenstat, a top-ranking diplomat in the Clinton administration, said he never forgot this injustice and has always tried to do right during his career as a statesman.
Eizenstat, former U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, Undersecretary of Commerce, Undersecretary of State, and Deputy Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration, came to the Law School Thursday and discussed his past efforts to correct injustice. Eizenstat also discussed his new book, “Imperfect Justice,” which is a testimony of his quest to provide restitution for victims of the Nazi regime.
The novel is an account of his actions during the 1990s as the State Department’s special envoy for Holocaust issues. Eizenstat worked to reclaim the assets Nazis stole and hid in Swiss, German and French banks, in what became known as the “Swiss gold affair.” He also fought to provide compensation for both Jews and non-Jews who had been forced to labor without compensation for the Nazis. He said his team of lawyers and experts discovered that the Nazis had forced over 10 million people to work, freeing up German citizens to fight against the allied forces.
Law school professor Harold Koh, who served with Eizenstat in the Clinton administration as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, praised Eizenstat’s work on Holocaust issues.
“The work he did in bringing a resolution to the Holocaust assets dispute was a remarkable display of ability, imagination, persistence and conscience,” Koh said.
In dealing with this dispute, Eizenstat said he worked closely with bankers, governments and American special interest groups for nearly six years. In 2001, a New York federal court judge ruled that the companies and banks involved were to pay a total of $8 billion to both Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the Nazi regime.
“After 50 years, those who had been long forgotten victims were finally remembered before it was too late,” Eizenstat said.
In one of the first instances of the U.S. government becoming directly involved in a matter between two private parties, Eizenstat and his team used the special provisions of the Alien Torts Claims Act to bring suit against the banks. The Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789 grants U.S. federal courts jurisdiction over “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”
In 1995, Richard Holbrooke, who was then assistant secretary of state for European affairs, asked Eizenstat if he was interested in handling Holocaust affairs for the Clinton administration, in addition to his current job as U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Eizenstat’s advisers and fellow diplomats warned that pursuing justice for Holocaust victims would be a treacherous quagmire, given the monetary consequences for businesses, banks, governments, as well as the Holocaust victims.
Despite these warnings, Eizenstat said he felt compelled to fight for the Nazi concentration camp victims who suffered such terrible injustices.
Yale President Richard Levin, who met with Eizenstat yesterday, said he admired Eisenstat’s accomplishments.
“Eizenstat had a distinguished career,” Levin said. “He has been an important public servant.”
Eizenstat served on the staff of former President Jimmy Carter and said he was impressed by Carter’s commitment to human rights. He cited Carter’s commitment as one of the most important influences on his pursuits as a diplomat.
In his discussion, Eizenstat stressed the long-term implications of the case, which he said include a promotion of human rights and a new form of foreign policy driven by class action law suits.
“Most importantly, there was a simple emergence of truth,” Eizenstat said.