Professor Louis B. Sohn (1914–2006) was not only present at the creation of the modern international legal system, he was its principal architect. He participated in the 1945 drafting conference in San Francisco that created the United Nations, as well as in events leading up to the conference. He also played a leading role in the creation or development of many other areas of international law, including human rights, international environmental law, law of the sea, international organizations, arms control and disarmament, and international dispute settlement. Each of these areas of international law bears his creative and indelible mind-print.
In addition to contributing to the development of specific areas of international law and its institutions, Louis had systemic, cross-cutting impacts having to do with the very nature of the international legal system. As Dean Harold Koh notes in his essay in this volume, “[Louis] helped shape the exact moment in history when international law made its dramatic shift from a loose web of customary, do-no-harm, state-centric rules toward an ambitious positive law framework built around institutions and constitutions—international institutions governed by multilateral treaties that aspired to organize proactive assaults on a vast array of global problems.” His vision involved the recognition that international law could, and indeed should, move beyond the regulation of state-to-state activities to also govern significant aspects of the complex set of relationships among non-state actors such as individuals, transnational corporations, nongovernmental organizations, and intergovernmental organizations. His most ambitious effort in this respect was the co-authored book World Peace Through World Law, which envisioned an unusually strong world government, including criminal enforcement powers.
In that process, Louis recognized the indivisible inter-connectedness of all elements of the legal system. In Dean Koh’s words, Louis “led an intellectual revolution to break down the historic distinctions between public and private law, domestic and international law, and municipal and global governance.” Louis was keenly aware of the interrelations within the legal system as a whole, just as he came to be keenly aware of the interdependence of the biosphere, including human society, and the need to address that interdependence through international law and cooperation.
Famously described as “the Brain who walks like a Man” and recipient of a staggering array of honors, Louis’s vision, knowledge, flexibility, energy, persistence, humility, extraordinary attention to detail, and dedication to the rule of law were legendary around the world. He played many roles during his career, including teacher at three law schools, scholar, author of innumerable articles and books, advisor (informal and formal) to national and state governments and intergovernmental organizations, negotiator of treaties and soft law instruments, advocate in two cases before the International Court of Justice, legal statesman, and source of inspiration to generations of international lawyers. He also was active in a wide array of important non-governmental organizations, including the American Bar Association (“ABA”), the American Law Institute (“ALI”), and the American Society of International Law (“ASIL”), the activities of which benefited immeasurably from his participation. He chose these activities strategically so that they led to the further development and effectiveness of international law.
In some cases Louis’s influence was direct, e.g., via participation in intergovernmental negotiations. In other instances it was indirect, e.g., through ideas he suggested to officials or through the impact of his numerous scholarly works. Similarly, sometimes his influence was open and visible, such as with respect to dispute settlement in the law of the sea negotiations; and sometimes, as it often is with lawyers who remain in the background while their clients (or others they are working with) have the public role, his influence was invisible to all but those he was advising. Partly because of this, we will never know the full extent of the impact he had on international law and institutions.
The other contributors to this tribute, Dean Harold Hongju Koh and Professors Thomas M. Franck, Detlev F. Vagts, and David Kennedy provide personal insights about Louis and his work. I highly commend these essays, as well as a set of personal tributes in the George Washington International Law Review. They are testament to the significant effect Louis had on others and to how rare and wonderful he was as a human being. As one of those contributors puts it, “We will not see his like in the years to come.”
In the remainder of this Article, I first provide a brief biographical sketch of Louis Sohn’s life. I then describe samples of Louis’s contributions to five areas of the international legal system: the United Nations, human rights, international environmental law, law of the sea, and arms control and disarmament. These samples provide a sense of how broad Louis’s vision was and how comprehensive his approach was to effectuating change. Those sections are followed by comments about Louis’s impact via teaching and mentoring, and a Conclusion….
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