On February 20, 1976, the French jurist, human-rights pioneer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rene Cassin died, at age 88. Cassin had a long and distinguished career as legal thinker and practitioner, and in the latter part of his life became renowned as a Zionist and Jewish activist. But it is for his work as the principal drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, that he is best known for, and for which he earned the Nobel Prize two decades later.
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Cassin was born October 5, 1887, in Bayonne, France, to Henri Cassin, a merchant of Sephardi-Jewish descent who gave up Orthodox observance and changed his first name from Azaria, and Gabrielle Dreyfus Cassin, whose Ashkenazi family from Alsace withheld her dowry from her when she married Henri. The couple divorced in 1911.
Rene Cassin studied law at the University of Aix-en-Province, but the legal career he began in Paris in 1911 was interrupted by the start of World War I three years later. He was called up into the infantry and was severely wounded in 1916, surviving only because his mother was serving as a nurse in the field hospital where he was brought for treatment, and persuaded doctors to operate on him.
After the war, Cassin became a law professor, first at Aix, then at Lille, and finally at the University of Paris, where he held an appointment until 1960. He was active with war veterans – organizing both the French Federation of Disabled War Veterans and a pacifist veterans group, and also working for veterans’ rights on the international level. From 1924 to 1938 he was a French delegate to the League of Nations, where he worked to advance the causes of disarmament and of international law.
In the years before World War II, Cassin’s focus was on seeing the creation of a federation of states united by “a superior moral rule: law,” as he put it in a speech before the League.
When the Germans occupied Paris, in 1940, Cassin escaped to London, where he joined the resistance led by General Charles de Gaulle. He served the Free French in many capacities, including as principal negotiator with the British on the Free French Charter, and in the constitutional planning for a post-war government in his country.
Following the war, however, he did not take a government position, instead becoming president of the Council of the National School of Administration.
In 1947, Cassin was named one of 18 members of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which, under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the late American president, undertook to draft a declaration of general human rights. Although the document that emerged was the first of its kind on the international level, it had roots in such national statements as the Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.
Its revolutionary character stemmed from its incursion on individual states’ sovereignty, in saying that certain inalienable human rights trumped national laws. Cassin is considered the person responsible for the editing and molding of the declaration into its final form.
Cassin also served on the Court of Arbitration in the Hague and was president of the European Court of Human Rights. But he also became involved in Jewish affairs following World War II and the Holocaust. He founded the Consultative Council of Jewish Organizations in France, in conjunction with the American Jewish Committee and the Anglo-Jewish Commission; its aim was to promote human rights at the United Nations from a Jewish perspective, and it continues its work today globally under the name CCJO Rene Cassin. He also headed the Alliance Israelite in France.
His fight for the protection of Jewish human rights was based in part on Cassin’s belief that Jewish rights would be protected if the cause of universal human rights could be established. The Nazis, he believed, threatened all of humanity, not just the Jews.
Cassin’s internationalism did not prevent him from being a supporter of Israel. It also was reflected in his involvement in the cause of Soviet Jewry during the years before Jews from the USSR were permitted to emigrate freely. But these causes always found their basis in Cassin’s advocacy for universal human rights. As he himself declared in a 1968 speech in Jerusalem, “Never will Jews in particular obtain real equality until the totality of human rights are respected for everyone.”