Louis Henkin

October 14, 2010

Summer 2011

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Louis Henkin, University Professor Emeritus at Columbia Law School, was often called the “father of human rights law.” It was not a title he sought or coveted. But it is one few would dispute. Henkin passed away on October 14, 2010, at the age of 92.

When Henkin began his law career in 1940 as a clerk to the legendary Judge Learned Hand, human rights as a concept did not exist in international law. But after working at the State Department and as a consultant to the United Nations, Henkin realized that at the intersection of constitutional law and international law—he was an expert on both—was a set of issues and unanswered legal questions about rights and obligations that transcended national borders and political ideologies.

“He breathed life into the new human rights movement and pioneered the study of human rights law as a discipline,” said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a December 2010 ceremony where Henkin posthumously received the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award.

Clinton credited Henkin with taking the rights that had only been theoretical for most and weaving them “into the fabric of international law.”

Sarah H. Cleveland, the Louis Henkin Professor in Human and Constitutional Rights, said in a 2007 tribute that students loved being in a classroom “with the person who both witnessed the birth of the modern human rights movement” and who was a “pillar of that regime.”

That pillar was grounded in the philosophy that a robust international human rights framework is the best way to protect a person’s dignity and integrity. “In countries around the world, human rights conditions are no longer ‘nobody’s business,’” Henkin noted in 1999. “Today, they are everybody’s business.”

Henkin is survived by his wife, Alice, who is also a noted human rights lawyer; three sons: Joshua, David, and Daniel; and their families.

On March 28, the Law School held a series of events celebrating the life and legacy of Henkin. To read numerous tributes to the late professor, visit law.columbia.edu/mag/louis-henkin.

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