Louis Henkin: Remember and Emulate

Louis Henkin: Remember and Emulate

[Mary Ellen O’Connell is Robert and Marion Short Chair in Law and Research Professor of International Dispute Resolutin at Notre Dame Law School]

Louis Henkin dedicated his classic work, How Nations Behave, to his father

Who All His Days Loved Law,
Sought Peace and Pursued It
Psalms 34: 12-14

The verse applies equally to Lou. He loved the law and sought peace through it. He loved the United States Constitution, the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Human Rights Covenants. These last he dubbed, “the international bill of rights.” His ability to create such phrases exemplifies his particular gift as scholar and teacher. He could go to the heart of complex legal concepts and find a way to clarify, explain, and convince. We all know his iconic statement about most states and their fidelity to most of their international legal obligations. And most know his title: Reports of the Death of Article 2(4) are Greatly Exaggerated.

My personal favorite is his argument against relaxing the UN Charter restrictions on the use of force:

It is not in the interest of the United States to reconstrue the law of the Charter so as to dilute and confuse its normative prohibitions. …[I]t is important that Charter norms…be clear, sharp, and comprehensive…. Extending the meaning of ‘armed attack’ and of ‘self-defense,’ multiplying exceptions to the prohibition on the use of force and the occasions that would permit military intervention, would undermine the law of the Charter and the international order established in the wake of world war.

Louis Henkin, Use of Force: Law and U.S. Policy in MIGHT V. RIGHT, INTERNATIONAL LAW AND THE USE OF FORCE 69 (Louis Henkin et al., eds., 1989).

These were not the views of an ivory tower idealist. Lou served four years in combat during World War II. He won the Silver Star for valor, something he never mentioned to me, although I was his research and teaching assistant for three years at Columbia and for years after spoke with him regularly about the use of force. He did mention to me once that Germans seem to understand Yiddish–he had gotten some Germans to surrender during the war when he spoke to them in Yiddish. It was actually 75 Germans and was the basis of his Silver Star.

He was simply the opposite of arrogant—he never boasted of accomplishments. I met him for the first time when he was inducted into the Institut de Droit International in 1982 because I was a graduate student in Cambridge assisting Robbie Jennings with the meeting. When I went to work for Lou at Columbia a few months later, I congratulated him on his induction. He told me he didn’t think much of such things. What he plainly thought a lot about was advancing international law. In the years I worked for him, 1982-1985, he was co-editor-in-chief with Oscar Schachter of the AJIL; he was Chief Reporter of the Restatement Third of American Foreign Relations Law; he produced the second edition of his casebook; wrote several important articles, taught law courses, and the required course on international law for 200 students in Columbia’s School of International Affairs (now SIPA.)

He was also fully engaged with his family. He loved talking about “Mrs. Henkin” and his sons. He often pointed out that each son had chosen a fascinating career outside the law. Our last conversations were about Alice, his grandchildren, and my husband Pete, also a highly decorated combat veteran.

Lou did all this with energy, humor, and deep interest in the people around him. I am convinced he taught the concept of human dignity so persuasively because he really saw in everyone profound dignity. He certainly treated all with respect, even those who opposed him. He might give me a heads-up about difficult personalities, but that was for me, not idle gossip.

At his funeral, his sons, rabbi, and friends spoke movingly and authentically about him. Of greatest moment for international lawyers were these words: remember and emulate.

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