Employees of the European Court of Human Rights, who enter through its rear entrance, encounter a name every day at the last pedestrian crossing by the traffic light – René Cassin. The whole "allée" they've just crossed is named after him. On that sign by the traffic light they can read that he lived from 1887 to 1976, received the Nobel Peace Prize, and served as a president of the Strasbourg court from 1965 to 1968. Of course, there is a lot missing on that sign. For that reason, I would like to remind everyone of one thing on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: René Cassin is one of its main authors. Its father.
The best prerequisite for understanding the essence of human rights and being a good defender of them is the experience of their strong and unjust restriction. Maybe that was the reason why some judges of the first (and to a lesser extent the second) decade of our Constitutional Court had an irreplaceable human rights instinct. They experienced the persecution of the communist regime firsthand, whether in prison or in exile. Unfortunately, René Cassin also experienced immense human horrors, including perhaps the very worst - wartime atrocities.
René Cassin fought in World War I. In October 1914, near St. Mihiel in northern France, the enemy hit him three times with machine gun fire. He lost a lot of blood. A serious injury to his abdomen and legs almost killed him. As a colonel, he had seen too many members of his platoon fall, too many fellow soldiers, too many friends. After such a personal experience from World War I and the horrors of World War II, Cassin's dreams and goals were clear - let's do everything we can to ensure that none of it ever happens again.
During the interwar period, René Cassin worked as a law professor in Lille and Paris. He also served as a representative of the French war veterans' movement at the League of Nations in Geneva. He advocated the idea of disarmament and tried to work towards reconciliation between former enemies of the war. According to him, the veterans' movement provided a convincing platform for this. Unfortunately, he also had to witness the failure of these efforts in the face of events in Hitler's Germany, including the sad downfall of the League of Nations. He left it after the Munich Agreement.
In Geneva, he met and befriended many internationally known people, including Edvard Beneš and Henry Rolin from Belgium, his future judicial colleague. His ideas matured there, and they were directly reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the war. These ideas can be summarized in two key aspects.
The first aspect concerns the reevaluation of two themes: (a) the concept of state sovereignty and, in particular, (b) the position of the individual in international law. The basis of Cassin's thinking on human rights was the necessity to limit (a) and, conversely, to promote and strengthen (b). He considered it essential for anyone to be able to lodge a complaint at the international level against the state in which they live for violations of human rights committed by that state. He believed that it was possible to create an environment in which an all-powerful state would no longer be able to trample on the rights of the individual without consequences. Today, this may seem like a given, but at that time, it was a strongly revolutionary idea.
The second aspect of Cassin's ideas concerns social and economic rights. René Cassin was in close contact with the International Labour Organization through his involvement in veterans' movements. He believed that men severely injured in war - regardless of which army they fought for - had a right to justice, not charity. This line of thought, derived from the values on which the International Labour Organization was founded, is one of the sources of later efforts by René Cassin to have economic and social rights included alongside civil and political rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As we know today, these efforts were successful (see articles 22 to 26).
After World War II, René Cassin held various positions. Among other things, he became the vicepresident of the French State Council. He was involved in the establishment of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). And most importantly, he was one of the members of the UN Commission on Human Rights. It was established as an organ of the United Nations Economic and Social Council under Article 68 of the UN Charter. This council, among its other duties, may create commissions to promote human rights. This is exactly what happened with the creation of the UN Commission on Human Rights. René Cassin was the rapporteur of that commission for the entire project.
To this day, there are disputes who had the most significant intellectual influence on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition to Cassin, Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the commission, and John Humphrey of McGill University in Montreal, who led the commission's secretariat, are mentioned. The truth is that the declaration was the result of a process in which dozens of individuals participated. And the most importantly, this process led to consensus, resulting in the approval of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 without a single vote against it. The horrors of the Nazi regime made it clear to everyone that the balance of power needed to shift from the state to civil society and the individual. No state, party, or individual could be above the law. This conviction had already led to the Nuremberg Trials and later to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, it should be noted that in terms of geopolitics, 1948 was not otherwise a positive year for human rights.
But why did the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remain just a declaration, a formally non-binding document? René Cassin was a realist. He believed that a document in the form of a statement of human rights principles - or a "manifesto" supported by everyone who overthrew the Nazi regime - was the maximum that could be achieved at that time. A binding human rights treaty was impossible at that time. Moreover, Cassin did not think it was better to wait until such a treaty could be adopted. On the contrary, he believed that it was the best possible time to create a basic document on which future generations could build. And that's exactly what happened.
If you look at practically every human rights document that has been created since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to this day, you will see the declaration in it. This applies to the European Convention on Human Rights, which was created shortly after the declaration, as well as the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, both 1966 covenants (on civil and political rights and on economic, social, and cultural rights), the 1965 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the 1984 Convention Against Torture, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, and even the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Of course, this also applies to our Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms and many other similar national documents. Or the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. They all follow the declaration. They expand it with the stamp of legal force. They have its DNA. Exactly as René Cassin wanted and foresaw.
Furthermore, let us recall the words of Judge Fouad Ammoun from his concurring opinion on the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice in the Namibia case in 1971. He addressed the question of the binding nature of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He acknowledged that it did not have the binding force of an international treaty under Article 38(1)(a) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice. However, according to him, it became part of customary international law under Article 38(1)(b). The path to its legally binding force was eventually found.
After the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Strasbourg stage of Cassin's professional life slowly began. He first became a delegate to the newly established Council of Europe. In 1959, he became one of the first judges of the newly established European Court of Human Rights. After a few months, he assumed the position of vicepresident of the Strasbourg court. As mentioned above, he chaired it from 1965 to 1968 (he was then replaced by his friend Henri Rolin). He entered history, among other things, by announcing the judgment in the Lawless v. Ireland (No. 1) case as the president of the chamber on November 14, 1963 – the first judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on an individual application against a state. His legal philosophy from the interwar period finally materialized in practice with an impact on a person’s life.
René Cassin served in Strasbourg until 1976, when he passed away at the age of 89. However, before that, he received another significant honor - in 1968, on the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. For his work on the declaration, for his work at the European Court of Human Rights, and for his overall effective promotion of the idea of protecting human rights. He used the money he received in connection with the Nobel Peace Prize to establish the International Institute of Human Rights, which – with its current name “René Cassin Foundation” – is still active in Strasbourg today. I'm sure you can guess which street it's located on. France also paid posthumous tribute to René Cassin - on the 100th anniversary of his birth, his remains were moved to the Panthéon in Paris, where the the significant figures of French history rest.
After it was announced that he would be the laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize, René Cassin famously said, "As long as human rights are violated anywhere in the world, there will be no peace on this planet."  Given the ongoing wars in the world, these words can send chills down one's spine as we realize how much of a prophet Cassin was. Nevertheless, his legacy remains a source of inspiration for many in the field of human rights. Personally, I often think of him in discussions with those who espouse anti-human rights sentiments. I wonder how he would react to them. I suspect that his kind smile would appear on his face. And everyone would realize that they are speaking to someone who embodies, through a lifetime of experience, what he passionately advocates. His legacy will embody that forever.
*Written by Martin Kopa, a judge and a human rights teacher.
Council of Europe. La conscience de l'Europe: 50 ans de la Cour européenne des droits de l'homme. Millennium Publishing: London, 2010. Retrieved from: https://70.coe.int/pdf/anni_book_chapter07_fra.pdf, s. 109.
Winter, J., Prost, A. René Cassin and Human Rights: from the Great War to the Universal Declaration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
René Cassin's Nobel lecture: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1968/cassin/lecture/
René Cassin's profile on the Nobel Prize website: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1968/cassin/biographical/
René Cassin's profile on the European Court of Human Rights website: https://www.echr.coe.int/w/rene-cassin
René Cassin's profile on the Council of Europe's 70th anniversary website: https://70.coe.int/rene-cassin-symbol-of-the-europe-of-human-rights-en.html
René Cassin at the UN General Assembly during the presentation of the draft Universal Declaration of Human Rights: https://youtu.be/5yb67oTf7PM?si=U-tlpyFS2M4iqRpr
Interview with René Cassin after the announcement of the Nobel Prize: https://youtu.be/gz3lrbxCJ5I?si=Tapj8myVFN_zQJ34
Interview with René Cassin in 1970: https://youtu.be/JmknuJPU-As?si=YTn76yTkw6phUll7
René Cassin Foundation - International Institute for Human Rights website: https://iidh.org/
Monument of René Cassin, author: Martin Kopa