A presence at the creation

Celebrated international law professor Louis B. Sohn LL.M. ’40 S.J.D. ’58 died at his home in Falls Church, Va., in June. He spent much of his career advocating for increased powers for the United Nations and championing disarmament and human rights.

Sohn, who died at the age of 92, served on the Harvard Law faculty for 35 years. He was the Bemis Professor of International Law for two decades, from 1961 until 1981.

An influential participant in the 1945 San Francisco conference that led to the creation of the United Nations Charter, Sohn was also a key contributor to the creation of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. He is considered a founding father of two fields of international law: human rights law and international environmental law.

Born and educated as a lawyer in Poland, Sohn came to the United States to attend Harvard Law School at the invitation of an HLS professor who had read one of his legal treatises. According to The New York Times, Sohn boarded a ship to the United States just two weeks before the Nazis invaded Poland.

Sohn became an assistant to Manley O. Hudson, a judge on the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague, who preceded him as Bemis Professor. In 1996, the American Society of International Law conferred upon Sohn its highest honor, the Manley O. Hudson Medal. Sohn was also the first recipient of an international environmental law award given by the Center for International Environmental Law, in 2003.

“With the passing of Louis Sohn, we have lost almost the entire cohort of international lawyers who were ‘present at the creation,’” said Detlev F. Vagts ’51, Bemis Professor of International Law, Emeritus. “The phrase, which is the title of Dean Acheson’s autobiography, refers to their having been involved in the planning, drafting and implementation of the post-World War II international system. This was an exhilarating achievement after the gloom of the international anarchy of the 1930s and the horrors of World War II.”

Vagts recalls that Sohn had a great love for books and international documents. After his years at HLS, Sohn taught at the University of Georgia School of Law at the invitation of Dean Rusk, who had been secretary of state under President John F. Kennedy. In 1997, the University of Georgia School of Law established the Louis B. Sohn International Law Library, which includes more than 3,200 monographs donated by Sohn from his personal collection.

Professor Emeritus Henry J. Steiner ’55, founder of HLS’s Human Rights Program, said of his longtime colleague: “As impressive as his academic achievements were, Louis Sohn was so much more than an encyclopedic scholar, who for a number of decades was a leading and perhaps reigning thinker about international law. He was at once realist and visionary, and his vision surely stemmed from his personal and professional experiences with so tragic and sorry a world. Louis’ writing and spirit were guides for and companion to the postwar struggle to build world peace through law and international organizations, and to advance the novel program of international human rights. He gave to all of us ideals to be realized and the sense that hope and commitment in adversity were essential to so grand an ambition.”