Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lou Henkin

Columbia Law Professor Louis Henkin--accurately described as "the father of human rights law"--passed away last week.  For a flavor of the incredible breadth of Lou's work and influence, I recommend the NY Times obituary and a moving piece by Clyde Haberman on Lou's funeral.  Anyone who has taught or worked in public international law knows what a towering figure he was.  Here I want to add a brief personal reflection.

In the world of social and political activists, one often finds people who care deeply about "the people" but treat actual people badly, who passionately defend "human rights" even as they mistreat the human beings around them.  Lou was nothing like that.  Virtually to a person, everyone who knew him was fiercely loyal to him because they could see his fundamental decency.

At the same time, Lou was a force to be reckoned with.  The Times obit recounts how, in WW II, he persuaded three German officers to surrender their 78-man unit to his 13-man American artillery unit (a feat for which Lou was awarded the Silver Star).  As I had heard the story, the German officers began by demanding that the Americans surrender, and Lou persuaded them of the opposite proposition.  Having seen Lou work on law school deans and colleagues to support a project he wanted, that's entirely believable to me.

Here's a small example from my own personal experience.  When I was a junior faculty member at Columbia, Lou asked me if I would co-teach his Constitutionalism in Comparative Perspective Colloquium--a weekly seminar that combined readings in political theory with guest lectures from UN ambassadors and the like in area studies (e.g., constitutionalism in Latin America, constitutionalism in Africa).  I was reluctant to do it.  Senior colleagues who had previously co-taught the colloquium with Lou had moved on from it, leading me to think that this was simply a duty imposed on juniors.  Lou was gentle but tenacious.  He assured me that it would be an easy course to teach because all of the readings were already put together and that I'd get full credit for teaching a quarter of a seminar: the guests would do half the work, while he and I would split the remaining half.  I succumbed to the pressure eventually and am enormously grateful that I did.  The two times I co-taught the colloquium with Lou provided me with a grounding in comparative constitutional law that has been essential to my understanding of American constitutional law ever since.  And more importantly, co-teaching with Lou gave me a role model for running a seminar and teaching more generally--a sense of how to demand hard work and serious thought from students without a touch of meanness.  I don't know that I've always lived up to Lou's example, but I'm sure I would have done much worse if I hadn't had it to emulate.

It's hard enough for an academic to have any influence at all on the real world, let alone to achieve what Lou did.  I don't think it would be hyperbole to classify Lou as a world-historical figure almost on the order of Gandhi or Mandela.  He will be sorely missed.


  1. See too the following posts at Opinio Juris :

  2. There was a generation of Jews who took a sort of rabbinic intensity--I think that's the proper term--and put it into law, human rights, and so forth. It is something that I don't think exists in quite the same form today. BTW he supposedly talked to the Germans in Yiddish, which tells you even more about his persuasive powers (and courage).

  3. And now this at Opinio Juris from Anne-Marie Slaughter and Catherine Powell:

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