Portraits of World Citizens.

Louis Bruno Sohn, International Legal Publicist

Professor Louis B. Sohn was a great international legal publicist whose teachings continue to contribute to international law against the cur-rent opposition of the so-called realists in world politics.

Sohn contributed to the Statute of the International Court of Justice, peaceful settlement of disputes, enforcement of human rights, disarma-ment and arms control, the law of the sea, protection of the environment, and especially systemic United Nations reform. He was co-author, with Grenville Clark, of World Peace through World Law (1958). Sohn was said to have been "an architect of much of modern international law" (Edith Brown Weiss, 2003). That was true enough, though it cannot be denied that, especially in his adopted United States of America, adherence to the Law of Nations was at a low ebb at the time of his death. More true was the praise of a former student: "What set Louis apart from all the rest of the great teachers at Harvard Law School was his grand vision of creating a future world order based upon the rule of law" (Francis A. Boyle, 1984). Sohn was a model for those teachers who aim at the higher realism of the rule of law in place of leadership in an arms race.

Louis B. Sohn was born in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine) in 1914. Lwów, in the center of Galicia, was a strategic point in east-west trade, industry, and history. Possession of the city had shifted from Poland to Austria in 1772, to Poland in 1919, to the U.S.S.R. just after Sohn escaped in 1939, to Poland again after 1945, and finally since 1991 to Ukraine. Young Sohn received diplomacy and law degrees (tops in his class) from John Casimir University in 1935. He continued research in the library, but as a Jew his movements were restricted. Later, both his parents, Isaak and Fredericka, who were doctors, perished in the Holocaust. A Harvard pro-fessor saw one of Sohn's papers and invited him to study in America. Sohn caught the last boat out of Poland two weeks before the Nazi invasion. These formative experiences contributed to his hatred of war and racism and to his determination to extend the rule of law from within states to re-lations between states.

At Harvard, Sohn learned that the professor who had invited him died. But the dean helped the young, multilingual Pole, found him a room and a job in the cafeteria. Soon Sohn began to work with Prof. Manley O. Hudson, a former American judge on the World Court, even though the U.S.A. was not officially a member. Harvard Law was then much under the influence of former dean Roscoe Pound, whose "sociological jurispru-dence" emphasized adapting law to new social circumstances. Sohn ap-plied this doctrine to the customary and treaty law between states in the age of machine industry and soon atomic weapons.

Sohn earned his LL.M masters degree at Harvard in 1940 and mar-ried Betty Mayo of Radcliffe. He accompanied Judge Hudson to the San Francisco conference on the United Nations Organization, where they worked on the Statute of the International Court of Justice, integral with the Charter. Sohn began teaching at Harvard Law in 1947, publishing case books first on "World Law" (1950) and then, as the high idealism of the end of World War II waned, on "United Nations Law" (1956). He won his S.J.D. doctorate in law about the time he and Clark published World Peace through World Law, and Sohn succeeded Hudson as Bemis professor of in-ternational law in 1961.

He taught there for twenty years. (I myself, curious about the origins of the world federalist movement, met him there in 1977, and he showed me every courtesy.) He then accepted an offer from former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk to teach at the University of Georgia Law School, where Sohn became Woodruff professor in 1981. His personal library of 3,200 books and monographs-a treasure for the future-is now collected in the Louis B. Sohn International Law Library on the fourth floor of Dean Rusk Hall at the law school.

Sohn then moved to Washington as a Jennings Randolph Distin-guished Fellow of the new U.S. Institute of Peace in 1991. He finally be-came director of research and studies of the International Rule of Law Insti-tute of George Washington University. When I arranged a conference on the history of federalism after fifty years (1997), I convened it there, and Sohn graced us with his reflections of a lifetime. I once wrote to him about international arbitration and human rights, and he sent me reprints of every paper he had written on the subjects! Even after he declined in old age, I was pleased to give him a copy of my history, long in the making, The Politics of World Federation (2004), which recounts his and others' vision and practice.

Prof. Sohn won many prestigious assignments and awards. Besides participant in the U.S. delegation to the San Francisco conference in 1945, he was briefly a legal officer in the U.N. Secretariat, a consultant to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, a counselor on international law to the Department of State at the turning of the Vietnam War, an official U.S. delegate to the third Law of the Sea conference (1974-80), chairman of the Commission to Study the Organization of Peace, member of the board of editors of the American Journal of International Law, president of the American Society of International Law, chairman of the section on interna-tional law and practice of the American Bar Association, winner of the Manley O. Hudson medal (1996), and winner of the first award for out-standing contributions to the development of international environmental law (2003).

Sohn also wrote countless books, pamphlets, articles, reports, and lec-tures on international law, settlement of international disputes, the law of the sea, protection of the environment, disarmament and arms control, pro-tection of human rights, regional organizations, the United Nations, world order, and peace. Some of these are instructive from the point of view of his influence on the legal and political establishment of the United States. World Peace through World Law made a plain and convincing argument for "general and complete disarmament under effective international control," as the first two U.N. disarmament conferences expressed the objective (1961, 1978), but the Cold War gutted this goal; in its place came the much less ambitious project of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. One of the most prescient proposals of Clark and Sohn was a "world equity tri-bunal" to settle political disputes beyond the capacity of international courts, but hostility to further steps of international organization is so great that one never hears of it any more.

One success he had was to declare, as a most highly respected legal publicist, that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) had been incorporated into so many new national constitutions and international treaties that it had become "customary [binding] international law" (1968).

Sohn and the Commission to Study the Organization of Peace pro-duced a work, "The United Nations: The Next Twenty-five Years" in 1969, which was replete with practical next steps (not instantaneous world gov-ernment), but the complete rejection by states-members of reforms of the Security Council and the like in the fall of 2005 indicates how far the world has drifted away from such visions. Like many of Sohn's works, that arti-cle remains a program for the future, probably after some crisis like the one that led to the U.N. itself.

About the Law of the Sea, Sohn was a close consultant to the negotia-tions for the third Law of the Sea Convention, which was signed in 1982, and he laid out in magisterial fashion its elaborate provisions for binding arbitration of complex disputes, which went on for 300 articles and nine annexes. He wrote that the greatest danger to the stability of the new re-gime over international waters was from conflicting unilateral interpreta-tions of the convention's provisions. "An authoritative and generally bind-ing method of establishing precedents was needed," he explained, "and only an international body with sufficient prestige and trust might be able to do it." A single channel for settlement, like the ICJ, was too rigid, since states for historical or practical reasons desire more flexibility. This was provided by provisions for arbitration, in which states party to disputes can choose the applicable law and the arbitrators in each case, as in fisher-ies, pollution, scientific research, deep sea mining, maritime boundaries, and navigation. Sohn was so impressed with these provisions for arbitra-tion that he wrote that international arbitration may be "the wave of the fu-ture."

Sohn was troubled by the guarded avoidance of international law by national policy makers toward the end of the violent 20th century. He died in 2006 near Washington, D.C., at age 92. The problem seems to be that the teaching of international law is, despite Sohn's dissent, currently dominated by a generation of scholars schooled in the Cold War and is likely to re-main so for another generation. If the U.S. continues to get bogged down in wars far from home without U.N. authority, as in Iraq after 2003, then for two generations. So Francis Boyle argued in The Future of International Law and American Foreign Policy (1989). The realists, he stated, "have left in their wake an entire generation of American foreign policy decision makers who really believe that international law and organizations are totally ir-relevant to the conduct of international relations."

This current American attitude is not born of hubris, but of painful re-flection over policies of non-preparedness and trust in the beginnings of in-ternational organization before the U.S. was dragged into two World Wars. Americans are now making trial of the realist alternative, taught by émigré Europeans like Hans Morgenthau. Whether Americans can yet avoid re-verting to isolationism but lead the world toward freedom under the inter-national rule of law may well depend on appreciating the teaching of citi-zens of the world like Louis B. Sohn.


Joseph Preston Baratta, historian, author of The Politics of World Federation 2vols.(Praeger, 2004)