Louis Henkin, a World War II veteran and former Columbia professor widely considered a founding father of human rights law, died at age 92 on Thursday of complications of dementia.
Colleagues, students, lawyers, federal judges, and family spoke in his honor at Riverside Memorial Chapel on Sunday for a crowded ceremony that left many standing.
In addition to fighting in World War II—where he once earned a Silver Star for convincing 78 German soldiers to surrender to his force of 13—Henkin, University professor emeritus played a major role in the creation of the Center for the Study of Human Rights.
At the University in 1978, he persuaded then-Provost William Theodore de Bary to create the Center and he went on to co-found it alongside Barnard professor and director of human rights studies J. Paul Martin.
Before entering academia, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter as well as Second Circuit Judge Learned Hand, and he worked for the State Department’s United Nations Bureau, playing a major role in negotiating the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention. Henkin mentored hundreds of human rights lawyers and specialists through Aspen Institute seminars and has been considered one of the greatest scholars of international law and foreign policy. Many of his books are now required reading for government officials and diplomats.
“He was so very energized and warm,” Martin said in an interview, remembering his first impression of Henkin over 40 years ago. “He was a hard man to say no to.”
And, according to Martin, the first thing that came to mind when asked what Henkin taught him was “not to use adverbs and adjectives.”
Many of the speakers at the service emphasized Henkin’s honesty.
“Louie’s North Star was the fidelity of truth,” Michael Posner, founding executive director of Human Rights First, said.
Daniel Henkin, his youngest son, spoke about his father’s strong will to live.
“In deep ways he, believed he would never die—and he would be quite surprised to see us here today,” David Henkin said of his father, who is survived by his wife and three sons, as well as five grandchildren.“In these past few weeks, especially when it seemed like he might die, but he didn’t die, and didn’t die, and didn’t die again, it almost convinced those of us who loved him most that this wouldn’t happen.”
He added, “Daddy, I’m going to miss you a whole lot. I miss you a lot already, and you’ve only just gone.”
Corrections: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referenced a judicial position Henkin never held. An earlier version also misattributed a speech to University President Lee Bollinger. Further, the title of Michael Posner has been adjusted to clarify that he was the founding executive director. Spectator regrets the errors.