The Quotable Louis Henkin

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International Law
"Almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time."

“If peace can be maintained, international stability enhanced, nations left alone to work out their destiny, the economic and social development of nations assisted by those who have more, then the rights of individual human beings will have a chance to flourish, and the UN can play a role in speeding the process, to increase these rights, to make these rights count.”

The United States Constitution
“[I]n a world of states, the United States is not in a position to secure the rights of all individuals everywhere, [but] it is always in a position to respect them…The choice in the Bill of Rights of the word ‘person’ rather than ‘citizen’ was not fortuitous; nor was the absence of a geographical limitation. Both reflect a commitment to respect the individual rights of all human beings.”

Technology and the Law
"Slowly, slowly, technology will begin to meet its promise; poor nations will be less poor; new nations will be less new…increasing welfare will begin to supply basic human needs for all…The process is under way, however gradually or imperceptibly. Its progress depends on maintaining the order we have, through the law there is. It depends on nations paying more, not less, attention to law, extending its domain, and sacrificing some often superficial, immediate interest for law’s longer, deeper promises."

Human Rights
"Every man and woman between birth and death counts, and has a claim to an irreducible core of integrity and dignity.”

“Implicit in the idea of human rights is a commitment to individual worth. The individual counts, and counts independently of the community.  The idea suggests equality of human beings, not hierarchy among them.”

“Equality is not yet universally welcomed, and discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity, or gender will be difficult to eradicate. The world has moved, but it has not yet moved far enough.”


“Lou Henkin has been my teacher, my colleague, my adviser, my cherished friend. Countless times, when I was struggling with a trying case involving a question of constitutional law or international law, I looked to his writings for counsel.  Lou’s writings sometimes clarified ‘what the law really is,’ but other times lucidly developed ‘what the law ought to be'...
.On human rights under our living Constitution and evolving international law, no scholar has worked more devotedly, or done more to enlighten judges than Lou Henkin. He has been rightly called a constitutional scholar of Solomonic stature, a writer of elegance, grace, lucidity.” – The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, United States Supreme Court

“…Lou’s scholarship and teaching transcend the walls of the Law School and the University – and even the lives of his students and colleagues. He has played a key role in shaping international human rights law and in helping other countries incorporate human rights standards into their constitutions and laws. He has literally created lawyers and activists, working daily to preserve elemental human decency on a local, national, and global scale.”
President Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia University

“Professor Henkin has been unequalled both as a scholar and as an advocate in influencing international human rights. As a scholar, he founded the field of human rights in law and other disciplines. Many of his mantras are now central themes of the human rights movement.” – Professor Sarah Cleveland, Louis Henkin Professor in Human and Constitutional Rights, Columbia Law School

"Lou Henkin’s influence on the education of the judges in this country, and therefore the law, is really immeasurable...Lou’s wonderful combination of human decency, gentleness, wit, and brilliant ability to convey information at an enormously high level led hundreds of judges to say that he opened their eyes to a world that they did not know existed, and prepared them for the world in which international law now plays such a big part."
The Honorable Rosemary Barkett, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals

“…What makes Lou Henkin a genuine hero is not just his brilliance and his scholarly achievement, but his absolute integrity and incorruptibility. If Lou says it, it must be right – not just because there is no one smarter, but because there is no one more honest…. In the years I’ve been lucky enough to work in these fields, there is no issue on which he has not spoken; there is no issue on which he has not taken a stand.” Harold Hongju Koh, Legal Adviser, U.S. Department of State

“…[Louis Henkin’s instincts] on the prohibitions on torture and extrajudicial execution… have been taken into account now over the years by decisions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights many times, but also in many parts of Latin America by domestic courts that maybe don’t cite Lou Henkin’s writings but do inherit the thinking behind them….The new horizons of human rights…only highlight the need to go back to basic human rights law.…And all of those are insights we learned from Lou Henkin early on, and they have decisive meaning today and will continue to have meaning as we develop even newer hori­zons of human rights protections in the future.”
Juan Mendez, President, International Center for Transitional Justice

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