Professor Louis B. Sohn was a great international legal scholar whose teachings continue to contribute to the development of world law. Louis B. Sohn whose birth anniversary we note on 1 March was born in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine) in 1914. Lwów, 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 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 medical doctors, perished in the Holocaust. A Harvard professor 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 relations among 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 jurisprudence” emphasized adapting law to new social circumstances. Sohn applied this doctrine to the customary and treaty law among States in the current age.
Sohn earned his LL.M masters degree at Harvard in 1940. 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, which is part of the U.N. Charter. Sohn began teaching at Harvard Law School in 1947, publishing case books first on “World Law” (1950) and then on “United Nations Law” (1956). He won his S.J.D. doctorate in law and succeeded Hudson as Bemis Professor of International Law in 1961. He taught there for twenty years. 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
Sohn was a close consultant to the negotiations for the third Law of the Sea Convention, which was signed in 1982, and he proposed its elaborate provisions for binding arbitration of complex maritime disputes. It was during the decade-long negotiations on the Law of the Sea that I worked with Sohn as I was an NGO observer for the World Citizens, and he an official member of the U.S. delegation.
Today, with the conflicting claims over the South China Sea as well as other delimitation conflicts as well as fisheries, pollution, and deep-sea mining issues, I appreciate the vision of Sohn on creating an institution for arbitration for the Law of the Sea. “An authoritative and generally binding methods of establishing procedures is needed, and only an international body with sufficient trust might be able to do it” he explained.
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. Our continuing efforts to develop world law for a fast-changing world society owes much to the knowledge and vision of Louis Sohn.