Academic journal article The George Washington Journal of International Law and Economics

Louis B. Sohn and the Settlement of Ocean Disputes

Academic journal article The George Washington Journal of International Law and Economics

Louis B. Sohn and the Settlement of Ocean Disputes

Article excerpt


The greatest contribution of Professor Louis B. Sohn to the field of international law is his unrelenting effort to confirm that it is a real and enforceable body of sound legal principles. He has promoted this idea throughout his life by working to construct effective international organizations and reliable permanent disputeresolution mechanisms so that the rights protected by international law become predictable and binding, those who violate international norms are punished, and those who are injured receive compensation. Professor Sohn always recoiled from the view that international law is merely a relativistic balancing of policy preferences, malleable to suit nations' short-term needs. He always viewed international law as a legal system like any other body of law - a set of binding rules designed to guide conduct and resolve controversies.

Professor Sohn knows all the nuances of all the decisions of the International Court of Justice and other international tribunals1 and he quotes the principles and holdings found in these opinions as authoritative sources, applicable and binding upon other nations in comparable contexts. He has aided our understanding of the importance of the negotiating process at multilateral diplomatic conferences in accelerating agreement on customary international law norms. He has also stressed the significance of the texts developed at these conferences-even those not widely ratified-in providing authoritative evidence of the existence of binding customary principles, each "add[ing] a brick to the edifice of international law."2 Although he has occasionally been characterized as a "dreamer," many of Professor Sohn' s dreams have come true, and "there is no doubt ... that the law is steadily moving in the directions he has outlined."3 Because he has always been frustrated that international law does not have sufficiently sophisticated tribunals to protect the injured and punish the wrongdoers, Professor Sohn's life's mission has been to promote the creation of new and better dispute-resolution mechanisms that aggrieved parties can utilize to protect their rights and seek compensation for their losses.4

Throughout his career, Professor Sohn has inspired his students and informed national and international decisionmakers with his systematic descriptions of existing and possible decision-making procedures. During the 1970s at Harvard Law School, for instance, he asked his student research assistant to check the 5,000 treaties registered with the League of Nations "to find all the clauses on the settlement of disputes, and to provide a methodology for their classification and analysis."5 He has worked hard to make the International Court of Justice more effective and more frequently utilized,fi and he has worked to include dispute-resolution procedures in numerous other treaty regimes.


In 1970 Professor Sohn left Harvard for a year to become Counselor on International Law for the U.S. Department of State. After returning to academia, he continued to serve for many years as a Consultant to the State Department's Office of the Legal Adviser. His contributions to the development of international law in this position were numerous, but certainly one of his major accomplishments was crafting and nurturing the provisions on disputeresolution in the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.7 Professor Sohn participated as Deputy Representative on the U.S. delegation throughout the decade-long negotiations that produced the treaty, which he later characterized as "the most important event in the process of development of a viable international law."8 During this process, he focused on the drafting of provisions on the settlement of disputes.9 His vision and careful attention to detail are found throughout these articles, now found in Part XV of the Convention, and they remain a remarkable accomplishment. …

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