Louis Henkin, ‘father of human rights law,’ dies at 92

Obituary: A prolific scholar, Henkin’s books, articles and amicus briefs are cited in hundreds of US federal and state court opinions.

louis henkin 58 (photo credit: Courtesy)
louis henkin 58
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Louis Henkin, a Columbia Law School professor credited with founding the study of human rights law and inspiring generations of legal scholars, died on Thursday.
He was 92.
The youngest of six children, Eliezer Henkin was born on November 11, 1917, in what is now Belarus. His father was Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, an authority on Halacha.
Henkin fled with his family six years later as the treatment of Jews there worsened.
A vice principal at his Hebrew school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side had no regard for Henkin’s nickname, Lazar, and started calling him “Louie.” Louie became Louis, and, by the time he entered Yeshiva University in 1933, the name had stuck.
Henkin was a 1937 graduate of Yeshiva College and a class of 1940 LL.B. graduate of Harvard Law School. He served as a law clerk for Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter and worked with the US Department of State, NATO and the United Nations.
Between clerkships, Henkin spent four years in the US Army during World War II.
While serving in an artillery observation unit during the invasion of France, Henkin and 12 other US soldiers came upon three German officers.
Speaking Yiddish to the officers, Henkin paved the way for negotiations with their commander that ultimately led to the surrender of 75 Germans to the 13 Americans. For his efforts, Henkin was awarded the Silver Star.
Henkin published several books, including Foreign Affairs and the United States Constitution, The Rights of Man Today, How Nations Behave, and Age of Rights. He was the chief reporter of the influential Restatement (Third) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States.
He served as president of the American Society of International Law and of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy.
In 1978, Henkin co-founded what is now the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.
Two decades later, he launched Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute with professor Catherine Powell.
“Lou was a towering figure here at the Law School, and his intellectual and personal contributions were immense,” said David M.
Schizer, dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law.
“Lou’s path-breaking work in constitutional and international law has influenced generations of leading jurists and advocates all over the world.”
A prolific scholar, Henkin’s numerous books, articles and amicus briefs are cited in hundreds of US federal and state court opinions. In 1993, a federal appellate judge referred to him as the “preeminent constitutional scholar in the area of international law.”
Those sentiments were shared by US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who said she was “powerfully influenced” by Henkin. In a 2006 tribute to mark the 50th anniversary of Henkin’s affiliation with Columbia University, she called him a “cherished friend.”
Henkin is survived by his wife, Alice, who is also a noted human rights lawyer, and three sons, Joshua, a novelist, David, a professor of American history at the University of California at Berkeley and Daniel.