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The Human Rights Legacy of Louis Henkin

Columbia Celebrates the Human Rights Legacy of Professor Louis Henkin
By Sonia von Gutfeld, Assistant Editor

University Professor Emeritus Louis Henkin could not have known early on that he wanted to go into human rights law; the field did not exist until he created it.

As a young man, his favorite subject was mathematics. One day, while a math major at Yeshiva University, he came upon his roommate filling out some paperwork.

“What are you doing?” Prof. Henkin asked him.

“My application for Harvard Law School.”

“Harvard Law School?” Prof. Henkin responded.

He had not previously considered law but took a career-defining leap. He completed his own application, took the admittance tests, and the next year entered Harvard Law School with tuition money borrowed from his sister. After one semester, he started earning a stipend for excellent academic performance.

Although Prof. Henkin states that law school, like so many of his choices, "was accidental," the magnitude of his accomplishments belies pure coincidence. In the past six decades, he has illuminated – in numerous books, articles, and class lectures – the connections between constitutional and international law. Dubbed “the father of human rights,” he has pioneered human rights law study and established centers that serve as beacons of scholarship and that train scores of new advocates. Above all, he has stood up for the recognition of the dignity of every individual around the world over deference to national interests.

These achievements were recognized at a tribute held at the Law School on September 21, 2006.