A jurist, humanitarian, and internationalist, René Samuel Cassin (October 5, 1887- )* is one of the world’s foremost proponents of the legal as well as the moral recognition of the rights of man. Neither a pessimist nor an optimist, the peace laureate, eighty-one years old when awarded the prize in 1968, confessed that “men are not always good” but he has based much of his life’s work on the premise that human responses can be constructive if states will transform the conditions that breed ill will into those that recognize the dignity of man.
Cassin was born in Bayonne (Pyrénées-Atlantiques), the son of Gabrielle (Dreyfus) Cassin and Henri Cassin, a merchant. Having established a record of intellectual brilliance at the Lycée of Nice, he added to it in his advanced studies at the University of Aix-en-Provence where, in 1908, he received a degree in the humanities, along with one in law. He took first place in the competitive examination given by the Law Faculty and in 1914 received the doctorate in juridical, economic, and political sciences.
Cassin has made his career in law as practitioner, professor, scholar, administrator, and promoter. The legal career which he began in 1909 in Paris, where he was a counsel at the Court of Paris, was brought to an end when he was inducted into the infantry in 1914. Severely wounded in 1916 by German shrapnel, he survived, but only because his mother, serving as a nurse in the field hospital to which he had been carried, persuaded the doctors to perform surgery. Although the injury he sustained was to give him acute discomfort throughout his life, he recovered, married Simone Yzombard of Marseilles, and entered upon his career as a professor of law at Aix late in 1916.
He moved to a professorship in law at Lille in 1920 and in 1929 to the chair of fiscal and civil law at the University of Paris, where he remained until his retirement from formal teaching in 1960. His teaching career included various scholarly assignments that took him to other countries. He lectured at the National School of Overseas Territories; undertook academic missions in Europe, French Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East; lectured at the Academy of International Law at The Hague, and at the University Institute of Advanced International Studies in Geneva.
Meanwhile, he made extensive contributions to legal scholarship, writing technical treatises on contracts, inheritance, the conception of domicile, and the inequality between men and women in civil legislation; he also published dozens of articles, many of topical concern, such as those dealing with aspects of human rights.
Cassin has been an administrator of academic affairs as well. For the embryonic French government-in-exile during World War II, he was the commissioner of public instruction. With the liberation of France in 1945, he became president of the Council of the National School of Administration [Conseil de l’école nationale d’administration] and in 1960 president of the French National Overseas Center of Advanced Studies [Centre national des hautes-études de la France d’outre-mer].
As a member of the Permanent Conference of Allied Ministers of Education (1942-1945), he encouraged the retention of instruction in the French language and the dissemination of French culture throughout the world. In the next two decades or so, he promoted education and law by serving as the president of several organizations – among them, the French branch of the World Federation of Democratic Jurists (1949), the Society of Comparative Legislation (1952-1956), the International Institute of Administrative Sciences (1953-1956), the International Institute of Diplomatic Studies and Research (1956), and the French Association for the Development of International Law (1962-1967).
Cassin has occupied high posts in the judiciaries of France and Europe. From 1944 to 1960, he was vice-president of the Council of State, a body which exercises ultimate jurisdiction in cases involving administrative personnel and administrative law. For the next ten years he was on the Constitutional Council, a court which, akin to the American Supreme Court, rules on questions of the constitutionality of laws passed by the legislature. He was president of the Court of Arbitration at The Hague from 1950 to 1960 and a member (1959-1965) and president (1965-1968) of the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg.
After World War I, Cassin devised practical outlets for his humanitarian instincts. In 1918 he founded the French Federation of Disabled War Veterans (L’Union fédérale des associations des mutilés et d’anciens combattants) and until 1940 served it in the capacity of president or of honorary president. To benefit children orphaned by the war, he accepted the office of vice president of the High Council for Wards of the Nation [Conseil superieur des pupilles de la nation]. In 1926 he founded and until the outbreak of World War II was the permanent reporter for the International Conference of Associations of Disabled War Veterans [Conference internationale des associations de mutilés et d’anciens combattants].
Cassin has participated in the political life of his country in various ways, but not in the usual one of seeking elective office or of acting as the leader or representative of a political party. He is a patriot and an internationalist at the same time. From 1924 to 1938, he was a French delegate to the League of Nations, serving at the Disarmament Conference and supporting various moves in the Assembly to advance the formulation and application of international procedures for reasonable accommodation of problems arising out of clashing national interests.
Cassin is said to have been the first civilian to leave Bordeaux to join General de Gaulle in response to his appeal from London after the armistice of June, 1940, between Germany and the capitulating French government. A mainstay for de Gaulle, he drafted all of the legal texts of his incipient government and conducted delicate negotiations with Great Britain, including the Churchill-de Gaulle accord which became the “Charter” of the Free French forces. He held important positions – among them, permanent secretary of the Council of Defense of the Empire (1940-1941), National Commissioner of Justice and Public Instruction (1941-1943), president of the Juridical Committee of the Provisional Government (1943-1945) and vice-president of the Upper House [Haute Assemblée]; he was a delegate to the United Nations Commission on Inquiry into War Crimes (1943-1945) and chairman (1944) of the legislative committee for the Consultative Assembly set up as part of the government-in-exile in Algiers in 1943.
In the period following World War II, Cassin not only occupied the judicial posts already mentioned, but also continued the international work he had begun in the League of Nations. On five occasions – 1946, 1948, 1950, 1951, 1968 – he was a French delegate to the Assembly of the United Nations, and for many years between 1945 and 1960 a delegate to the UNESCO conferences.
In his work on human rights, Cassin fused his legal knowledge, his humanitarian instinct, and his belief in internationalism. He was a member of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from its creation in 1946; vice-chairman from 1946 to 1955, a period which included Eleanor Roosevelt’s chairmanship (1946-1953); chairman from 1955 to 1957; and again vice-chairman in 1959. The workhorse of the Commission, he was the one most responsible for the draft of the Declaration of Human Rights approved by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948.1
In a series of lectures delivered in 1951 at The Hague Academy of international Law,2 Cassin provides a thorough discussion of the Declaration and of the early problems of drafting the Covenants: he analyzes the pertinent clauses in the Charter of the UN, the mandate of the Commission, the preparation and acceptance of the Declaration; he then provides a lawyer’s insight into definition of the rights, the limitations imposed, the problems of enforcing the proposed Covenants, measures needed for the examination of possible complaints, and procedures required for international surveillance and constructive control. In an article written to mark the International Human Rights Year of 1968, Cassin concludes with a simple admonition: “Now that we possess an instrument capable of lifting or easing the burden of oppression and injustice in the world, we must learn to use it”.3
Cassin, René, La Conception des droits de l’etat dans les successions d’apres le code civil suisse. Paris, Sirey, 1914.
Cassin, Rene, Le Contentieux des victimes de la guerre: Etude de la jurisprudence concernant les pensions de guerre et l’adoption des pupilles (1924-1925)., Paris, n.d.
Cassin, René, “La Declaration universelle et la mise en oeuvre des droits de l’homme”, in Académie de droit international de La Haye: Recueil des cours. Tome 2 en 1951, pp. 239-367. Tome 79 de la Collection. Paris, Sirey, 1952. Contains a brief biographical notice and a bibliography.
Cassin, René, Pour la défense de la paix. Paris, 1936.
Cassin, René, “18 [i.e. Dix-huit] mois de France libre”. Conference prononcée le 14 janvier 1942 a Beyrouth au cercle de L’Union française. 1942. In Harvard University Library.
Cassin, René, “L’etat Léviathan Contre l’homme et la communauteé humaine”, Noveaux Cathiers (avril 1940).
Cassin, René, ” How the Charter on Human Rights Was Born “, UNESCO Courier, 21 (January, 1968) 4-6.
Cassin, Réne, L’Inégalité entre l’homme et la femme dans la législation civile. Marseille, Barlatier, 1919.
Cassin, Réne, “La Nouvelle Conception du domicile dans le réglement des conflicts de lois ” in Academie de droit international de La Haye: Recueil des cours. Tome 4 en 1930, pp. 657-809. Tome 34 de la Collection. Paris, Sirey, 1931.
Cassin, Réne, “Le Réveil de l’empire français.” Conférence faite a l’lnstitut français du Royaume-Uni a Londres, le 15 janvier 1941. [London?, 1941?]
de Gaulle, Charles, The Complete War Memoirs of Charles de Gaulle, translated from the French by Jonathan Griffin. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1964.
Dictionnaire biographique francais contemporain, 1950.
The New York Times (October 10, 1968) 1, 14.
Nouveau dictionnaire national des contemporains. Troisième édition, 1964.
The (London) Times (October 10, 1968) 8.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.
René Cassin died on February 20, 1976.