Cassin, René (1887–1976)

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CASSIN, RENÉ (1887–1976)


French jurist.

René-Samuel Cassin helped establish human rights as the foundation on which the post-1945 European order was rebuilt. He was born in 1887 in the southwestern French city of Bayonne to a prominent Jewish family. He trained in law, but his professional work was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I in 1914. He joined the 311th Infantry regiment, was promoted to the rank of corporal, and served in the French sector to the east of Verdun at Saint-Mihiel. On 12 October 1914 he was severely wounded. Because of the chaotic medical system at the time, he had to be treated at his original garrison in the south of France. Somehow he managed to survive the four-hundred-mile journey by road and rail despite a stomach wound and endured surgery without an anesthetic.

While in convalescence, Cassin decided to work with and on behalf of fellow soldiers who had been wounded in active service. This led to the creation of a series of veterans organizations, which demanded better treatment and better pensions as a right, not a privilege. He also created an association for the benefit of war orphans, so that the sons of farmers or workers who had not survived the war would have the chance for a good start in life. These activities brought Cassin up against the recalcitrance and indifference of the French bureaucracy.

This struggle for natural justice created something new in European affairs—a pacifist veterans movement. French Republicans such as Cassin saw it as their life's work to ensure that their sons would not have to enter la boucherie—the slaughterhouse—of modern warfare.

From 1924 to 1938, Cassin represented the largest French veterans movement, the Union Fédérale, with two million members, in the French delegation to the League of Nations. At the same time, he took the initiative in establishing an international veterans organization, which met for the first time at Geneva in September 1926.

While serving in Geneva, Cassin had a frontrow view of the fragility of an international political institution that challenged the supremacy of state sovereignty. He saw how entrenched were conventional approaches to unbridled state power as the ultima ratio of international affairs. His patriotism was beyond question, but he had no time at all for what he termed "the ordinary obstinacy of old ideas which, in the name of the absolute sovereignty of states flow directly into the construction of armaments, to the politics of prestige, and then to war" (Agi, p. 188).

In May 1940 he was the legal advisor to the Ministry of Information in the besieged French government under Prime Minister Paul Reynaud. After the fall of France, Cassin escaped to England. There he met Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970), who embraced him as his legal advisor. Cassin drew up an indictment of the new Vichy regime as illegitimate, a rogue state whose writ was legally null and void. Marshal Philippe Pétain's government was de facto, not de jure; therefore, the Republic had not died, it had been usurped by the traitors who had signed the armistice with the Nazis. This document de Gaulle presented to Winston Churchill fortyeight hours after his first meeting with his new jurist colleague. Then de Gaulle asked Cassin to sketch out the structure of a shadow Republic, an administration in exile. This body claimed the legitimate authority to speak for France and to continue the traditions of the French Revolution and the Republic betrayed by the collaborators of Vichy.

In this organization, Cassin was everywhere, and his role was dignified further by the decision of a Vichy court to convict him of treason and sentence him to death in absentia. On 29 July 1940 Cassin started broadcasting for the BBC. He was responsible for the publication of the Journal officiel de la France libre, the congressional record of the government in exile. In November 1940 he was named permanent secretary of the new French Council of Defense and in that capacity attended many meetings on the future shape and reconstruction of Europe. He was the architect of the Administrative Conference of Free France, the group planning for the return of the "true" Republic to the European continent. He was responsible for maintaining ties with France's colonies and dominions overseas. In 1944 he held three portfolios in the new French national committee, that of Justice, Law, and Public Instruction, all essential agencies for restoring French political culture after the nightmare of defeat, occupation, and collaboration.

Through these posts he joined inter-Allied discussions on war crimes trials and on the future of the postwar world. Here is where the subject of human rights came to the fore as the sole basis of a future durable peace. The precise form such new commitments to human rights would take was unclear, but it was evident that the newly formedUnited Nations recognized the need for such an affirmation.

Three years later, at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, Cassin provided it. In collaboration with the former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and others, he reformulated one of the central foundational texts of the French Revolution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On 9 December 1948 he read this document to the United Nations assembled in Paris, which accepted it the following day.

The form of the commitment was limited. It was a declaration and not a convention, and thereby avoided the risk of colliding with claims to state sovereignty still strong in 1948. But over the next few decades, those claims were muted by other developments. The European Union came into being, and, to breathe life into his project, Cassin helped to institutionalize it within the new European order. From 1965 to 1968, he presided over the new European Court of Human Rights. At the end of his term, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He died in 1976 and, seven years later, his remains were removed to the Parthenon to lie in state with other heroes of the French Republic.

See alsoPétain, Philippe; Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Agi, Marc. René Cassin, prix Nobel de la Paix, 1887–1976: Père de la Déclaration universelle des droits de l'homme. Paris, 1998.

Cassin, Gérard. René Cassin, prix Nobel de la Paix, 1968: Rédacteur de la Déclaration universelle des droits de l'homme. Marseilles, 1998.

Glendon, Mary Ann. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York, 2001.

Israël, Gérard. René Cassin, 1887–1976: La guerre hors la loi, avec de Gaulle, les droits de l'homme. Paris, 1990.

Long, Marceau, and François Monnier, eds. René Cassin 1887–1976: Une pensée ouverte sur le monde moderne: Hommage au prix Nobel de la paix 1968: Actes du colloque organisé par l'Association René-Cassin et le Collège de France, le 22 octobre 1998. Paris, 2001.

Morsink, Johannes. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent. Philadelphia, 1999.

Jay Winter

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Cassin, René (1887–1976)

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