- Louis Sohn: Grandfather of International Human Rights Law in the United States*
“Louis Sohn has been affected by history as much as history has been affected by Louis Sohn.” 1
Dr. Louis Sohn has played a preeminent role for more than fifty years in the development of international law and the formation of international institutions. For the last half of this century he has patiently worked to build an international system that will protect individual human rights and provide for the peaceful settlement of international disputes. As a conciliator with a daunting intellect and an engaging nature, he brought divergent viewpoints together when it appeared that irreconcilable differences threatened a breakdown of international negotiations. His first such contributions proved important at the San Francisco Conference to draft the Charter of the United Nations and at the preceding Dumbarton Oaks Conference on the International Court of Justice. His suggestions for compromise at those conferences resulted in the passage of important provisions on the right to collective self-defense and the continuation of jurisdiction from the Permanent Court of International Justice to the International Court of Justice. As a professor at [End Page 924] Harvard Law School for more than thirty-five years, he mentored current leaders in international law such as Thomas Buergenthal, Thomas Franck, and Richard Bilder. Buergenthal said about Sohn: “His influence on our lives has been profound; he has affected our thinking and our professional careers in ways only truly great teachers do.” 2 Finally, as a meticulous researcher and scholar, Sohn has contributed to the codification and expansion of the law of the sea, international dispute resolution, and environmental law. In the words of the late Dean Rusk, former Secretary of State, “[Sohn] is a giant among international lawyers and has left a major imprint upon his chosen profession.” 3
Sohn is more than respected; he is loved. His kindness, willingness to mentor students, frequent laughter, and humble nature have endeared him to the many who have studied under him or worked with him. James Silkenat, the former Chairman of the International Law Section of the ABA, wrote:
It has happened more times than I can count. There is a meeting with some dignitary: a Finance Minister in Africa, a small town mayor in Arizona, or the partner of a large law firm in London. As we walk across a room, a courtyard or an open field our conversation is interrupted by my host saying, “Oh, my gosh [or words to that effect]. Is that Professor Sohn over there? I must run over and say hello.” Almost no one in legal education, in legal practice, or in legal “anything” inspires more respect, admiration, and affection than Louis Sohn. 4
Jose Alvarez, Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, said of Sohn: “Here is someone who truly is owed deference, yet refuses to solicit it. Here is that rarity in our field—a giant whose humility and generosity to colleagues and students has no equal, yet who refuses to be treated as the giant that he truly is.” 5
II. Personal History
Louis Bruno Sohn was born on 1 March 1914 to a Jewish family in Lwów, Poland. 6 His parents were both medical doctors. 7 He had one sister. When Louis was a young boy, his father insisted that he study languages. He was taught German and Latin at school and he learned French from a Swiss woman who lived nearby. It was much more difficult to study English. To do [End Page 925] so, he used an old-fashioned radio, holding a filament to a crystal and listening to the BBC over headphones.
Sohn was an exceptional student. He graduated first in his high school class, and went on to study at John Casimir University. Again, his father influenced his choice of study. Louis would have chosen history, but his father wanted him to pursue a more practical course of study. Sohn made a “bargain” with his father. He agreed to study the more practical field of law because the law school at that university was connected with a special school of diplomatic and international studies, an area that...