Louis Henkin, a leading scholar in international law and foreign policy, professor emeritus at Columbia Law School, and one of the principal architects of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, died last week at age 92.
Prof. Henkin led a long and eventful life. He was born Eliezer Henkin in 1917 in Belarus, the son of a prominent rabbi. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 1923, and he eventually attended Harvard Law School.
After law school, Prof. Henkin clerked for Judge Learned Hand before enlisting in the United States Army during World War II. He served in the European Theater and was awarded a Silver Star for his efforts.
After completing his military service, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
Beginning in 1948, Prof. Henkin worked for the U.S. State Department in the United Nations Bureau. There, he helped author the 1951 Refugee Convention, the key legal document defining who is a refugee, their rights, and the legal obligations of states.
Prof. Henkin left the State Department in 1956 and began a long academic career, mostly at Columbia University where he founded the university’s Center for the Study of Human Rights in 1978 and created the Human Rights Institute in 1998. Prof. Henkin was considered by many one of the “founding fathers” of human rights law.
Volker Türk, director of UNHCR‘s Division of International Protection, saluted Professor Henkin for his “fundamental contribution to the early development of international refugee law and his unwavering commitment to the protection of human and refugees’ rights.” “It is no exaggeration to say that no American was more instrumental in the development of human rights law than Lou,” said Elisa Massimino, the president and chief executive officer of Human Rights First, an organization Professor Henkin helped found in 1978 under the name Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights. “He literally and figuratively wrote the book on human rights,” she said.
According to the New York Times, Prof. Henkin took a lofty view of his own government’s international responsibilities, but he often felt let down: “In the cathedral of human rights,” he wrote, “the United States is more like a flying buttress than a pillar — choosing to stand outside the international structure supporting the international human rights system, but without being willing to subject its own conduct to the scrutiny of that system.”