Louis Henkin (1917-2010)

Louis Henkin (1917-2010)

[Harold Hongju Koh is the Legal Adviser, United States Department of State; previously he was  Martin R. Flug ’55 Professor of International Law and Dean, Yale Law School (2004-09), as well as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (1998–2001). This tribute is adapted from “The Future of Lou Henkin’s Human Rights Movement,” Columbia Human Rights Journal (2007).]

Lou Henkin, who died today, was my hero. He was one of the few truly great men I have ever met. During his six decades at the State Department, Penn, and Columbia Law School, Lou shaped modern international human rights law. In his years as an international lawyer, there was no important issue on which he did not take a stand. One measure of his influence is that every human on this planet has found some shelter or affirmation in his ideas. His commitment for human rights universalism came through in The Rights of Man Today; his passion for the rights of aliens and refugees in The Constitution and United States Sovereignty: A Century of “Chinese Exclusion” and Its Progeny, 100 Harv. L. Rev. 853 (1987). As a framer of the Refugee Convention and U.S. member of the Human Rights Committee of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, he fought for human rights not just in the academy, but in the trenches.

Lou dreamed of a world where the executive branch would use diplomacy and compliance with international law to promote global cooperation; where legislatures would maintain our compliance with our international obligations; where the courts would pay “decent respect to the opinions of mankind;” and where civil society would monitor our leaders and hold them accountable. In each of these areas, Lou did foundational work. As a law student, I first read Foreign Affairs and the Constitutionand saw new vistas opening from Lou’s crystalline analysis. As a graduate student studying international relations, I read How Nations Behave and paused over “the sentence that launched a thousand articles”: “It is probably the case that almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all the time.” Id. at 47 (2d ed. 1979) (1968). Lou’s thought pushed me toward the question–why do nations obey international law– that has since occupied my career.

I first saw Lou in the flesh thirty years ago, at D.C. ‘s Mayflower Hotel where he was running a meeting of the Restatement (Third) of Foreign Relations Law as the American Law Institute’s Chief Reporter. Like Daniel in the lion’s den. Lou was standing amid perhaps one hundred lawyers, each billing $500+ an hour, who were ferociously criticizing the Restatement’s expropriation provisions. After one particularly savage exchange, Lou turned to the speaker and said: “That may be what your clients pay you to say, but that’s not the law, and I won’t say it.”

At that moment I realized that what made Lou a true hero was not just his brilliance and scholarship, but his utter incorruptibility. For if Lou said it, people knew it must be true, because there was no one smarter, and because there was no one more honest. When I was a minority professor in my first year of teaching, the first person who invited me to speak on a scholarly panel was the great Lou Henkin. Once I finally met him, I realized that Lou was not one of those people who loved human rights, but hated human beings. I was as touched by his personal kindness, as by his clarity of thought. He regularly reached out to the underdog, the unnoticed, the unknown.

When I heard of his passing earlier today, I remembered Lou walking through the meadows of Aspen, with his dear friend, Justice Harry Blackmun, debating the right to privacy. And if you ever wanted to know what love looks like, imagine Lou and his beloved partner Alice, strolling in the sunset at Wye Meadows, arm in arm, talking about international human rights.

In his dedication to How Nations Behave, Lou remembered his own father with the words of the Psalms. Today, let us remember our greatest international lawyer the same way: as a simple man, an authentic hero “Who All His Days Loved Law, Sought Peace and Pursued It.”

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[…] passing. Over at Opinio Juris, Harold Koh, currently Legal Adviser to the State Department, has a lovely tribute to him.  I have come not to share Lou’s views on some things related to international law and human […]

Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Yes, a great human. RIP.


[…] Koh has written a touching tribute to Lou Henkin, which he starts by proclaiming that Lou was his hero.  A simple truth is that Lou […]