International Law Expert Louis Sohn

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Louis B. Sohn, 92, considered one of the world's greatest scholars of international law who helped draft the United Nations charter, define international human rights and design disarmament agreements, died of Alzheimer's disease June 7 at the Goodwin House West in Falls Church.

A teacher and an advocate, Mr. Sohn wrote extensively on legal matters from human rights to environmental law. As a law professor at Harvard University, the University of Georgia and George Washington University, he taught a number of students who later became ambassadors to the United Nations.

"Professor Sohn has been an architect of much of modern international law," Edith Brown Weiss, a Georgetown law professor who is chairwoman of the World Bank inspection panel, said in a 2003 address honoring him.

He worked on the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment and was important in establishing the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He shaped the Law of the Sea Convention and the Law of the Sea Tribunal, insisting that countries consider dispute settlement, and he drafted a text for the tribunal.

Born in what is now the Ukrainian city of Lviv, Mr. Sohn received degrees in science and law in 1935 from John Casimir University. He stayed on as a researcher but as a Jew was forced to enter the library early in the morning and leave late at night.

He was invited to work as a research assistant and study for an advanced law degree at Harvard, and he left Poland on one of the last boats to get out before the Nazi invasion. But upon arriving in Massachusetts, he was informed that the law professor who had invited him had just died. The law school dean found him a low-rent room and a job in a university cafeteria, and Mr. Sohn entered Harvard and received a master's degree in law in 1940. He received a doctoral degree in law in 1961.

He participated in the San Francisco conference in 1945 that established the United Nations charter.

Mr. Sohn began teaching at Harvard and became the Bemis Professor of Law in 1961. After retiring from the Harvard faculty in 1981, he went to the University of Georgia to become the first holder of the Woodruff Chair in International Law. In 1991, he moved to Washington to join the U.S. Institute of Peace and the George Washington University law faculty. His knowledge of international law and attention to detail were legendary.

"The notion of challenging him on a factual or analytical point just does not occur to anyone I know," lawyer James Silkenat said in a 1990 article in the journal The International Lawyer.

Mr. Sohn spent 20 months as a counselor on international law at the State Department in 1970 and 1971 and was the U.S. delegate to the Law of the Sea Convention from 1974 to 1982.

Several international awards are named for him, and he served as chairman of the international law section of the American Bar Association and president of the American Society of International Law. He was the first recipient of the International Environmental Law Award from the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law in 2003.

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Betty Mayo Sohn of Falls Church.

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