Blog: Henry Steiner

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March 26, 2014

Tribute: Robert Henigson, JD ’55, Strong Supporter of Human Rights Work at HLS

(This tribute was written by Henry Steiner: founder of the Human Rights Program in 1984 and its director for 21 years; Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law Emeritus)

Robert Henigson, my cousin and lifelong close friend, died on January 28 this year. We were classmates at Harvard Law School. After our graduation in 1955, HLS continued to figure in both our lives. I spent my academic career here. In a different environment and career, Bob’s activities linked him as well to this school.

I refer to the reach of his extensive philanthropy to HLS and its Human Rights Program. Bob became a leading supporter of our work in this field. His gifts enabled HRP to open fruitful paths toward its growth, while also contributing to the breadth of the school’s faculty and curriculum.

A man in his middle ages smiles at the camera. He wears a white button-down shirt and a tie and large square glasses.
Philanthropist Bob Henigson, JD ’55, a strong supporter of the Human Rights Program.

Bob practiced law at the Los Angeles firm of Lawler, Felix, and Hall, where he became a prominent lawyer and managing partner. He came to know people organizing a number of start-up companies, some related to scientific invention (Bob held two degrees from Caltech), that piqued his interest. His long-term investments in a few of them led to enduring relationships by Bob’s serving as their adviser, director or board chairman. In his last, seriously ailing years when travel was onerous, Bob’s joining meetings by phone had to do the job. Those years also brought to an end the hyperactive outdoor life that he and his wife Phyllis had relished – skiing, running, biking, hiking.

As his career in practice wound down, Bob’s attention to public-interest issues absorbed ever greater time, to the point where philanthropy trumped other ongoing activities during the post-retirement decades. His social, cultural and political concerns retained their earlier vitality. Bob found outlets or expression for them in a variety of philanthropic ventures. Some responded to liberal commitments to domestic civil liberties as well as to his liberal internationalism embracing the human rights movement. Other ventures assisted early education for the less well off or university centers; aided cultural institutions like orchestras and theatres; and strengthened organizations protecting against the spoiling of the natural world. At the same time, Bob worked closely with community leaders to advance the welfare of the local community on Orcas Island where he and Phyllis retired.

In my view, two innovations in human rights education stemming from Bob and Phyllis’s ongoing gifts to the school top the list of what those gifts made (or will make) possible. The first in time, the endowed Henigson Human Rights Fellowships that HRP administers, are available principally to graduating J.D. and LL.M. students who have demonstrated their commitment to human rights and their interest in building that field into their careers. Those students selected for fellowships actively participate for about a year in the work of a human rights NGO designated by them within a developing country. Stipends are in the neighborhood of $27,000. Recent comments (see below, directly following this tribute) from several of the 35 Henigson Fellows over the last 13 years describe ways how their experiences bore on their later, ongoing human rights work. These experiences were gained in such countries as Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Congo, Egypt, Hungary, India and Uganda.

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November 12, 2013

In Memoriam: Detlev Vagts, Professor of International Law

Posted by Henry J. Steiner, Founder, Human Rights Program, Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law, Emeritus

The recent death of Professor Detlev Vagts has saddened all of us who knew him. He will be remembered and his life and work celebrated at a memorial service to be held at Harvard Law School tomorrow. Since I’ve known Detlev as a friend for a half century and collaborated with him on a coursebook, I was asked to speak at that service. My present remarks have a particular relevance for the Human Rights Program and those associated with it.

Detlev was principally known within the school and the larger scholarly community for his exceptional work in the fields of public international law, transnational law, and corporate law. Within that broad domain, his work gave particular attention to transnational business transactions and economic regulation, comparative law with an emphasis on Germany and more broadly Europe, and professional ethics. My brief observations here, however, concern his deep and ongoing commitment to the field of international human rights in its postwar development, and to human rights in general.

One can almost say that Detlev was born with a deep historical sensibility. His ancestry included distinguished, influential historians on both his parents’ sides. Surely he could have become an academic historian. He chose, however, law- briefly its practice, and for decades as an academician. But the historical sense and perspective was never far from the surface of his discussions with his students or colleagues, or of his writing. In some articles, it was the dominant perspective.

Never was that sensibility clearer than in the influence of the historical events of his own lifetime. Detlev’s parents fled Germany, his home country, and immigrated to the United States soon after the Nazis came to power in 1933 and started to impose their savagery and ideology. That Nazi period of 12 years of rule became an object of his intense study. So much of Detlev’s recurrent browsing through the library stacks seemed to come up with more information about the period. A few of his articles explored it through topics such as the transformed character of international law under Nazi rule.

Perhaps it was inevitable with a consciousness influenced by such early-life horrific events that the values of human respect and decency and the recurrent risks of humanity’s descent into barbarousness played so prominent a role. His conversation and writing ranged over issues as diverse as betrayal of the humanitarian laws of war, systemic corruption of fair legal process, and slim protection of individual privacy. Whatever its patent inadequacies, its surrender to practical and power politics, and its lack of backbone, the human rights movement drew his keen interest and support. The ideal aspirations at the core of its message were his own ideals.

In his last nine years as a professor emeritus, Vagts seemed to me to write and argue more forcefully for his convictions. For one example, he looked carefully at and criticized the various tendencies in U.S. domestic and foreign policy to protect against the world’s manifest threats and actions through excessive measures that did unnecessary damage to human rights. He argued for the greatest care in reducing or qualifying rights, whether to due process or to liberties of action, that the postwar human rights movement had brought to public consciousness.

Detlev joined the law school faculty during the postwar years when liberal internationalism had emerged as an important creed animating many of the teachers of international, transnational and comparative law. Well aware of the creed’s shortcomings and sometimes problematic premises, he explored its promise and problems and often took the same broad direction: work towards an international rule of law, multilateral cooperation and regulation, the willingness of states to contain their sovereign interests and powers within the strictures of the rule of law, the hope that through the evolving international norms, institutions and rhetoric a better world would emerge with a lesser likelihood of return to the dark, bitter periods that had marred human history. Detlev’s work made its strong contribution to such broad ideals and concrete goals.

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