A Tribute: Columbia Celebrates the Human Rights Legacy of Professor Louis Henkin
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.
A FAMILY TRADITION CONTINUES
Prof. Henkin’s dedication to humanitarianism reflects his family’s ethic, which he describes as “probity, piety, and poverty.” When he was two years old, his mother passed away after tending to their community in present-day Belarus during an outbreak of dysentery and becoming sick herself. His stepmother cared for him and his five siblings, helping the family immigrate to New York in 1923 as the treatment of Jews in Russia worsened under Communism. His father, Rabbi Yosef Eliahu Henkin, worked for more than 50 years, first as a secretary and later director, for the charitable organization Ezras Torah, which supplies funds to needy Torah families and has helped refugees rebuild their lives on safer shores.
When the organization offered Rabbi Henkin a trip to Israel, where he was famous but had never set foot, he refused. “He wouldn’t take the charity’s money for this trip because it was supposed to go to the poor,” Prof. Henkin explains. His father’s “only vice was study,” he says. (The same perhaps could be said of Prof. Henkin – who admits to sneaking an advanced algebra book under his Talmud as a young man during his religious studies.)
Prof. Henkin always loved learning. He excelled as a student at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on the Lower East Side. The son of an orthodox rabbi and Jewish law scholar, he spoke only Yiddish at home; he learned English while addressing envelopes to rabbis around the United States for his father’s work. As he progressed in school and earned prizes for mathematics at Yeshiva, he saw himself on a path toward academia.
“Teaching is something I always thought I would do,” he says.
Prof. Henkin’s children share this passion. All three are teachers – one of music, another of creative writing, and another of American history.
A YOUNG LAWYER ENTERS THE FIELD
Prof. Henkin’s achievements as a student and editor for the Harvard Law Review caught the eye of his professor, Henry Hart, who one day “tapped me on the shoulder” and asked, “‘How would you like to work for [Judge] Learned Hand?’”
A strong supporter of free speech and a key figure in the formation of American contract and tort law, Judge Hand of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit is often called the “10th U.S. Supreme Court justice” by legal scholars.
After graduating from Harvard Law in 1940, Prof. Henkin worked as the sole clerk for Judge Hand. Shortly thereafter, the judge asked Prof. Henkin if he would like to clerk for Felix Frankfurter of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“And that itself was the application,” Prof. Henkin says, laughing. Today his office desk faces pictures of both Judge Hand and Justice Frankfurter.
Between clerkships, Prof. Henkin served four years in the U.S. Army, where his mathematical and legal expertise was an asset. It was, however, his skill as a negotiator that earned him the Silver Star for gallantry in action. In August 1944, Prof. Henkin and one other soldier were stationed near Toulon, France, when they encountered a German colonel and two other officers. With arms drawn in a standoff, Prof. Henkin asked the German troops to let him meet their local company commander.
He convinced the commander and his entire company to surrender to the American battalion.
Once home from service, Prof. Henkin became a consultant to the United Nations legal department, working with Oscar Schachter ’39 (who later taught at the Law School). Together they wrote a brief that successfully protected the UN when a lawsuit threatened to prevent its establishment on U.S. soil. In 1948, Prof. Henkin became a U.S. State Department officer and served in the UN Bureau and in the Office of European Regional Affairs through 1956. In these roles, he explored how international norms play out on a domestic landscape governed by the U.S. Constitution.
Recommended by another Columbian, Professor Philip Jessup ’24, Prof. Henkin came to the University to direct a project on disarmament for the Legislative Drafting Research Fund. This work became his first publication, Arms Control and Inspection in American Law, which argued that an arms control plan would be permissible under the U.S. Constitution. It also marked a turning point in his career toward academia. The next year he taught at University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he stayed until joining the Columbia Law School faculty in 1962 as professor of international law and diplomacy.
In the decades that followed, Prof. Henkin transformed legal education at Columbia and beyond. He taught students international and constitutional law and designed courses that, for the first time, examined the interplay between the two. He created new scholarship and fields of study in human rights, international human rights, and comparative constitutional analysis.
His publications, such as the seminal book How Nations Behave (1968), The Age of Rights (1989), Foreign Affairs and the U.S. Constitution (1975), and International Law: Cases and Materials, now in its fourth edition, have “created the body of doctrine by which constitutional law and international law connect,” says Professor Lori Damrosch, a co-editor on the casebook. That connection informs how the U.S. government observes the rights of citizens and foreigners, both at home and abroad.
Furthermore, “[Prof. Henkin] has managed to mainstream his subject at this law school and many others,” his colleague Professor José Alvarez explains. “Human rights discussions are not restricted to those courses that have it in their titles…. Exposure to international human rights is no longer restricted to those self-selected students who are interested in matters international.”
Prof. Henkin’s impact reverberates in classrooms outside of law, thanks in no small part to the Columbia University Center for the Study of Human Rights. In 1978, Prof. Henkin and J. Paul Martin (current executive director) created the center, building on the work of Columbia Professor Wm. Theodore de Bary. Dr. Martin noted in his essay for Living Legacies at Columbia (2006), “Henkin believed that human rights were not just for lawyers – so the new Center’s executive committee included a philosopher and a social worker as well as [Prof.] Henkin….” The center aims to educate students across departments, foster interdisciplinary academic research, and share its expertise with leaders, organizations, and universities.
Prof. Henkin has inspired the next generation of human rights scholars and law professors. Professors Nigel Rodley KBE ’65 LL.M. at University of Essex – also an expert member of the UN Human Rights Committee – and Karen Knop ’90 LL.M. at University of Toronto – who served as rapporteur for the International Law Association’s committee on feminism and international law – are two distinguished alumni who thrived in the culture Prof. Henkin established at Columbia. His own former students include Professors Carlos Vazquez ’83 at Georgetown, Sean Murphy ’85 at George Washington, Martin Flaherty ’88 at Fordham, Barbara Stark ’89 LL.M. at Hofstra, Jonathan Klaaren ’91 at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Karin Mickelson ’91 LL.M. at University of British Columbia, Brad Roth '92 LL.M. at Wayne State, Penelope Mathew '94 LL.M. at Australian National University, Oscar Vieira ’95 LL.M. at Getulio Vargas School of Law in São Paulo, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin ’96 LL.M. at University of Ulster, and Mary Ellen O'Connell '85 at Notre Dame.
Prof. O’Connell, like many students, came to Columbia to study with Prof. Henkin. Having earned a law degree at Cambridge, she served as his teaching assistant for three years, which gave her “opportunities beyond what I could have imagined,” she recalls. When she later became a professor, she “took Lou’s model for how to shape a classroom.”
Law School professors also relish the opportunity to teach alongside Prof. Henkin. Colleagues are inspired by his intellectual rigor and fatherly kindness, and they continue to gain insights from his mastery of the subjects and the bridges between them. “How I felt working and co-teaching with Prof. Henkin is how a musician must have felt performing with Mozart,” says former CLS Professor Catherine Powell. She returns to Columbia this semester to co-teach a seminar with Prof. Henkin.
In 1998, Profs. Henkin and Powell launched the Human Rights Institute (HRI) at the Law School on the heels of a decade of human rights progress. The close of the Cold War, the growing strength of the UN, the explosion of new human rights NGOs, and the U.S. participation in a number of human rights treaties confirmed Prof. Henkin’s vision of what he termed an Age of Rights. It was the right moment to “institutionalize several decades of Lou’s work,” explains Prof. Powell, who served as executive director of HRI from 1998–2002.
HRI built an interdisciplinary forum at the Law School where theory met practice, law met history and political science, and internationalism joined constitutionalism. The institute created grants for several fellowships, including those for students who wish to become law professors, and a fund for post-graduate students. An LL.M. fellowship gives formal legal training to students who are already human rights advocates in their home countries, and a clinic offers students hands-on experience in the United States and around the world. These programs flourish today and continue to draw and train future leaders.
… AND BEYOND
Prof. Henkin works tirelessly outside the ivory tower. His scholarship influences judges, legislators, and politicians. In addition to a long publication list, he has written amicus briefs, advised human rights NGOs, and led organizations committed to promoting international relations on the basis of law and justice. From 1992-94 he served as president of the American Society of International Law, whose American Journal of International Law he co-edited from 1976-84. He is also a charter member of Human Rights First, founded in 1978 as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
Prof. Henkin has demonstrated his integrity in the face of criticism in many arenas, notably as chief reporter for the Restatement (Third) of Foreign Relations Law of the United States, undertaken by the American Law Institute. Harold Hongju Koh, former U.S. State Department official and current dean of Yale Law School, has recounted watching Prof. Henkin in action. The Restatement meetings reminded Koh of “Daniel in the lions’ den,” with high-powered lawyers, among others, criticizing the wording of the law. After one harsh remark, Prof. Henkin responded, “That may be what your clients pay you to advocate, but that’s not the law, and I’m not going to say that.”
Widely considered the most influential statement of both international law and the U.S. constitutional law of foreign relations, the 1987 Restatement is cited in 18 Supreme Court opinions and more than 251 federal Court of Appeals opinions, and will define international affairs for years to come.
Prof. Henkin has maintained his optimism and ideals even when progress seemed slow. His wife, Alice Henkin, a human rights attorney herself and the director of the Justice and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, says: “Lou once told me he’d heard that the world is divided between star-gazers and basket-weavers. I’m a basket-weaver; he’s a star-gazer.”
Others corroborate this characterization. Minna Schrag ’75 recalls lunch with the Henkins in 1994 on her first visit home to New York after she began working at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. She wanted to talk about the obstacles to setting up a truly international prosecutor’s office, but Prof. Henkin laughed at her stories. “Lou had his eye on the big picture: the creation of a forum where international human rights and humanitarian law would be enforced,” she recalls. “He was thrilled that it was really happening.”
Though he claims the role of star-gazer, Prof. Henkin is not an idealist. His optimism guides him not toward abstract utopia but toward functional structures to advance human rights protections worldwide. As the 21st century faces new questions about such issues, Prof. Henkin’s voice resounds as an authority.
In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006), which concerned the rights of a detainee in Guantánamo, the U.S. Supreme Court referred to Prof. Henkin’s amicus brief arguing that individuals have enforceable rights under the Geneva Conventions. While the decision granting relief to Hamdan used a different but related argument, Prof. Damrosch says, “The court had the Henkin brief in mind in drafting its opinion.”
The court’s decision is not an endorsement of one political side but rather a confirmation of the principles Prof. Henkin seeks to uphold. His commitment to human rights transcends party lines; it is rooted in his belief in the fundamental value of all people. The arguments Prof. Henkin made nearly decades ago in Age of Rights continue to spur growth of a system that honors the worth of every individual, no matter his or her spot on the globe: “…Every man and woman between birth and death counts, and has a claim to an irreducible core of integrity and dignity.”