Louis Henkin, pioneer of human rights law and Columbia professor, dies at 92

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 1:36 AM

Louis Henkin, 92, a legal scholar who pioneered the study of human rights law and wrote seminal books about the intersection between the Constitution and U.S. foreign relations, died Oct. 14 of undisclosed causes at his home in New York.

Mr. Henkin was a leader of the post-World War II movement to create a legal framework that would protect the dignity of all people - even if that meant infringing on a nation's sovereignty to scrutinize its human rights record.

"He was the father of human rights law - as a teacher, as a scholar, as a diplomat, as a human rights activist and as a moral example," said Harold Koh, a Yale University law professor who is currently serving as State Department legal adviser.

A professor at Columbia University since the 1960s, Mr. Henkin taught generations of law students and, through seminars run by the Aspen Institute's Justice and Society Program, trained hundreds of people - including several U.S. Supreme Court justices - in human rights law.

He was one of the nation's foremost analysts of constitutional and international law, and his writings on those subjects have become foundational texts for scholars and diplomats.

His best-known books included "The Rights of Man Today" (1978), an exploration of the roots of human rights; "How Nations Behave" (1968), about the tendency of states to follow international law; and "Foreign Affairs and the Constitution" (1972), a landmark study of the balance of power between Congress and the president on foreign relations issues.

Published against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, "Foreign Affairs and the Constitution" showed that debates about the power of the president - versus Congress - to commit troops overseas arose out of long-standing questions that had been at least partially answered in the United States' founding documents.

Despite the apparent accumulation of power in the executive branch, Mr. Henkin wrote, the Constitution clearly gave the bulk of foreign-affairs authority to Congress.

"Many people at the time saw it as a book casting light on Vietnam, but it turned out it way outlived Vietnam," Koh said. "It was a much more timeless book that cast equal light on the Iran-Contra affair, Watergate and lots of other historical episodes."

Mr. Henkin was known for writing with uncommon grace and clarity. One of his most famous passages reflects his long-standing frustration with the United States for what he saw as its willingness to allow domestic human rights abuses to go unaddressed.

"In the cathedral of human rights," he wrote in a 1979 article, "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."

Eliezer Henkin was born in what is now Belarus on Nov. 11, 1917. One of six children of a rabbi and religious scholar, Mr. Henkin fled with his family to the United States in the early 1920s, as Eastern Europe became an increasingly hostile place for Jews.

Living on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Mr. Henkin became known as Louie and eventually Louis. He graduated from Yeshiva College in 1937 and, after seeing a roommate fill out an application to Harvard Law School, decided to apply.

He graduated from Harvard in 1940, having served as editor of the law review, and clerked in New York for Judge Learned Hand of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.

Between those clerkships, Mr. Henkin served in the Army during World War II. He was awarded the Silver Star for the skills of persuasion that he displayed in France toward the end of the war, when he used his fluency in Yiddish to convince German officers to surrender more than 70 men to a unit of 13 Americans. Mr. Henkin promised prisoner-of-war status; other Allies, he told the officers, would not be so kind.

Mr. Henkin spent the late 1940s and early 1950s at the State Department, where he worked on matters related to the nascent United Nations. He helped negotiate the United Nation's 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defines the rights of refugees and the obligations of states toward displaced people.

Mr. Henkin spent a year at Columbia in the mid-1950s, where he tackled legal issues arising out of the new need to control and verify nations' nuclear capabilities.

After five years teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, he returned to Columbia, where he established the Center for the Study of Human Rights in 1978 and, 20 years later, the law school's Human Rights Institute.

Mr. Henkin married Alice Hartman, also a human rights lawyer, in 1960. Besides his wife, survivors include three sons, Joshua Henkin of Brooklyn, David Henkin of San Francisco and Daniel Henkin of Manhattan; and five grandchildren.

In addition to writing hundreds of scholarly articles, Mr. Henkin was the chief reporter for a massive two-volume treatise used by judges and others to understand how international law is applied in the United States.

At one point in the 1980s, as the document - the "Restatement (Third) of Foreign Relations Law of the United States" - reached its final stages, he stood alone before a group of more than 100 lawyers in a conference room at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.

The lawyers demanded revisions to Mr. Henkin's treatise, including a change to a provision on expropriated property that their clients found particularly unwelcome. Mr. Henkin was resolute in his refusal to meddle with the law.

"His own moral compass was so totally powerful that he was going to write what he believed," Koh said. "There was no changing that."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company