International Judicial Monitor
Published by the American Society of International Law and the International Judicial Academy
December 2006, Volume 1, Issue 5

Leading Figures in International Law

Sir Hersch LauterpachtSir Hersch Lauterpacht (1897-1960)

It is not often that an academic person rises to the level of icon of a century, or even of a generation or decade. Professor (and later Judge) Sir Hersch Lauterpacht is an exception. As one prominent international observer has stated: Hersch Lauterpacht is arguably the last century’s most influential international lawyer.” Through his writings and teaching he influenced generations of students, practitioners of public international law, political and legal philosophers, and international statesmen. He was a constant promoter of international peace, and provided the legal and philosophical foundations for a comprehensive international legal order and international institutions.

Like many other eminent and exceptional persons, he came from modest beginnings that would not suggest a background of greatness, and underwent suffering in his early life. Hersch Lauterpacht was born in 1897 in a small Jewish village outside of the town of Llow, in Galicia, a region currently divided between Poland and Ukraine, and then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents were orthodox Jews and his father operated a timber mill. In his youth he was active in a Zionist type movement that advocated various programs of social justice, including the nationalization of land. During the Great War, due to virulent anti-semitism in Galicia, he remained with his family, assisting his father with the operation of the timber mill. He also experienced strong anti-semitism at the local university in Llow, causing him 1918, at the age of 21, to abandon his studies there in favor of Vienna. His arrival in Vienna coincided with the rise of Zionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His leadership capabilities were early demonstrated by his election as the first president of the new World Federation of Jewish Students.

He received a doctoral degree from the Faculty of Law, University of Vienna, achieving only a “pass” grade, which may have been due to the anti-semitism there. His thesis topic was The International Mandate in the Covenant of the League of Nations. He moved to Britain in 1923, married the same year and allowed his devotion to Zionism to lapse.

Lauterpacht began publishing articles on international law soon after his arrival in the U.K. His first article, published in 1925, was biographical in nature, discussing the contemporary significance of John Westlake, “the most prominent British international lawyer of the 19th Century.” He obtained a Ph.D. degree from the London School of Economics in 1925, writing his dissertation on Private Law Sources and Analogies of International Law, published in 1927. The professor who guided his studies at the LSE was Dr. Arnold McNair, (later the first British judge on the International Court of Justice) an association that was to have implications in his later life.

He became editor of the Annual Digest of Public International Law (later International Law Reports) in 1929 and held that position for 27 years. He also edited four editions of Oppenheim’s International Law. He became editor of the British Yearbook on International Law in 1944 and held that position for 10 years.

Lauterpacht began his association with academe in 1931 with a lectureship at the London School of Economics, in the same year he became a British citizen. He was appointed a Reader in International Law at the University of London in 1932. He also developed an interest in the practical side of law, and was called to the bar at Gray’s Inn in 1936. Two years later he began his long association with Cambridge University when he was appointed Whewell Professor of International Law.

During his academic career Lauterpacht published a number of influential books on various aspects of international law, including An International Bill of the Rights of Man (1945) (which probably led to the creation of the European Declaration on Human Rights); Recognition in International Law (1947), International Law and Human Rights (1950) and The Development of International Law by the International Court (1958). He also wrote 55 articles on various aspects of international law and lectured at the Hague Academy of International Law.

His parents perished in the Holocaust. Perhaps as a result of that experience he became a member of the British War Crimes Executive in 1945-46. He assisted in the drafting of parts of the London Charter for the Nazi war crimes tribunal and of the opening and closing statements of Sir Hartley Shawcross, the British prosecutor at Nuremberg. He also contributed to the theoretical discussions preceding the formation of the United Nations based on his strong support of the League of Nations after World War I.

Lauterpacht developed his conceptions about the role of law in the world initially with the publication of his most influential work in 1933, The Function of Law in the International Community.

Among the ideas and doctrines that he promulgated and promoted during his life were:

  • The completeness and unity of the law in the world
  • The desirability of an international legal order to defend in legal terms the unity of the world
  • The idea that every event of international policy is amenable to legal analysis
  • Collective security as an expression of the rule of law among states
  • The role of international law in the protection of human rights
  • The idea that law must trump politics if there is conflict between international law and international politics

He worked throughout his life to create materials needed by international lawyers to construct an international legal system that would resemble domestic legal systems.

Lauterpacht concluded his long career in international law in an appropriate manner: he was elected in 1954 as a judge on the International Court of Justice sitting in The Hague, Netherlands, a position he held until his death. During his time on the ICJ he authored certain notable opinions and dissenting opinions. He wrote significant separate opinions in the Southwest Africa-Voting Procedures case (1955) and in the Norwegian Loans case (1957). His significant dissenting opinions were in the Interhandel case (1959) and the Aerial Incident case (1959). He was knighted in 1956.

Sir Hersch Lauterpacht died in 1960 at the age of 63. His ideas and works are still influential today, and his strong advocacy of a world governed by international law, with strong international institutions and organizations, is needed more than ever as an objective of the nations of the world and its citizens.

(Note: The information for this article was gathered primarily from two articles appearing in the European Journal of International Law, one by Sir Hersch Lauterpacht’s son, Elihu Lauterpacht, and one by Professor Martti Koskenniemi of Finland)

James G. Apple, Co-Editor, International Judicial Monitor and President, International Judicial Academy

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