Cassin Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

René Cassin received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his decades of work toward uniting the nations of the world in the fight to establish global standards for human rights.

Summary of Event

In November of 1968, the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament announced the selection of René Cassin as recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Cassin’s name was not well known; few outside the realm of international human rights work or the United Nations knew of him. His work over the previous decades, culminating in 1966 with the ratification of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights’s two international covenants after nearly twenty years of debate, constitutes a major contribution to the promotion of human rights. Nobel Peace Prize;René Cassin[Cassin]
Human rights;United Nations
Commission on Human Rights, U.N.
[kw]Cassin Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 10, 1968)
[kw]Nobel Peace Prize, Cassin Is Awarded the (Dec. 10, 1968)
[kw]Peace Prize, Cassin Is Awarded the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1968)
Nobel Peace Prize;René Cassin[Cassin]
Human rights;United Nations
Commission on Human Rights, U.N.
[g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1968: Cassin Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[10060]
[g]France;Dec. 10, 1968: Cassin Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[10060]
[g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1968: Cassin Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[10060]
[c]Human rights;Dec. 10, 1968: Cassin Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[10060]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 10, 1968: Cassin Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[10060]
[c]United Nations;Dec. 10, 1968: Cassin Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[10060]
Cassin, René
Roosevelt, Eleanor
Gaulle, Charles de
[p]Gaulle, Charles de;and René Cassin[Cassin]
Lionæs, Aase

Cassin was born in 1887 to a Jewish mercantile family in Bayonne, France. He earned degrees in humanities and law at the University of Aix-en-Provence and a doctorate in juridical, economic, and political science at the Faculty of Law at Paris. He was called up to serve in the infantry in World War I and in 1916 suffered a severe abdominal wound from German shrapnel. His life was saved by a stunning coincidence: His mother was a nurse at the field hospital to which he was taken, and she convinced the doctors to attempt surgery on her son.

From the war, Cassin gained a keen sense of human suffering, of the destruction of families and the randomness of tragedy. In World War I, the advent of aerial warfare and technological advancements in ammunition, including chemical weapons, had expanded the dimensions of wartime suffering, and millions across Europe were killed, maimed, widowed, orphaned, or displaced.

After the war, Cassin began to fight on behalf of the war’s victims. He called for compensation for personal damages incurred in national service, and for artificial limb banks, professional retraining programs, small business loans, and provisions for the welfare and education of orphans. In 1918 he formed the Union Fédérale des Associations des Mutilés et d’Anciens Combattants (the Federal Union of Associations for Disabled War Veterans) and served as its first president. He also served as vice president of the Conseil Supérieur des Pupilles de la Nation (High Council for Wards of the Nation). In 1921, he arranged conferences of war veterans from Italy, Poland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, and in 1926 he established an international organization of disabled veterans. Working with these groups made the price of war clear but also gave hope that unity among war’s victims—soldiers, workers, average men and women, and their families—could become an international peace force.

The League of Nations League of Nations , founded in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I, was the first organization to bring together the nations of the world to promote cooperation and the peaceful resolution of conflict. Cassin was a French delegate to the league from 1924 to 1936. It was through the league’s International Labor Organization that he encouraged veterans who fought on opposing sides to demonstrate together for the Disarmament Conference of 1932. Disarmament was not to come. Despite the growth of international organizations and the activities of individuals such as Cassin, Adolf Hitler armed Germany and established concentration camps to incarcerate, torture, and exterminate “undesirable” persons systematically.

After France fell in 1940, Cassin joined Charles de Gaulle in London to serve as minister of justice in the French government-in-exile. Cassin drafted the agreement between de Gaulle and Winston Churchill that became the charter of the French Free Forces. With the Allied victory and the war’s end in 1945, the world became aware of the atrocities perpetrated in Hitler’s Germany. As the League of Nations had been disbanded, the leaders of the world drafted the charter for a new organization, the United Nations, calling for a Commission on Human Rights to examine human rights conditions throughout the world and to formulate policies for their improvement. This effort represented the first time that a supranational organization would focus on sovereign nations’ treatment of their citizens.

Eleanor Roosevelt was chosen to chair the commission. Its other members included statesmen and stateswomen, scholars, and jurists; Cassin served as vice chair. The commission decided first to formulate a general declaration on human rights as a statement of principle and then to draft conventions regarding specific standards, implementation, and enforcement. These were no simple tasks, for the gap was wide between the ideals and the realities of political repression and conflict across the globe.

Not all statespeople agreed on what constituted human rights, how they should be defined, where national authority should defer to the United Nations, and how to effect cooperation from belligerent or repressive regimes. From the beginning, Cassin mediated between the Western emphasis on civil and political rights and the Eastern concern for economic, social, and cultural rights. He suggested that two conventions be drafted reflecting these two viewpoints.

The work of the commission was slow and arduous, with annual meetings of five to eight weeks. In January of 1947, a drafting committee was appointed consisting of Roosevelt, P. C. Chang Chang, P. C. of China, and Charles Habib Malik Malik, Charles Habib of Lebanon. Complaints about the lack of regional representation led to expansion of the committee to include European and Latin American delegates. Cassin was asked to review the U.N. Secretariat proposals; his recommendations were central to the drafting process.

The text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was sent to the General Assembly in 1948, after two years of formulation. It was adopted by the General Assembly in Paris on December 10. The commission then turned to the covenants. The means of enforcement and controversy over encroachment on national sovereignty posed the greatest problems. Cassin, concerned over limiting the covenants’ breadth, expressed concerns to the U.N. Economic and Social Council and attempted unsuccessfully to meet with Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld. Ultimately, the commission took six years to submit the two covenants to the General Assembly, and it took the General Assembly thirteen years to consider them. They were finally approved in 1966 with substantially weakened enforcement provisions. Ironically, the last original Economic and Social Council member to ratify the covenants was France, in 1974. Cassin’s work on the commission was the cornerstone of his career and a primary reason for his Nobel Prize two years after the passage of the covenants, but it was only one of his achievements.

In the years preceding his award, Cassin was an author of the charter of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO UNESCO ). He was a professor of fiscal and civil law at the University of Paris from 1929 through 1960. In the 1960’s, he served as president of the French branch of the World Federation of International Jurists, the French National Overseas Center of Advanced Studies, the Society of Comparative Legislature, and the International Institute of Diplomatic Studies and Research. From 1950 to 1960, Cassin was a member of the Court of Arbitration at The Hague, and from 1965 to 1968 he presided over the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. Thus, his Nobel Prize came at the culmination of a long and distinguished career.


The immediate impact of Cassin’s Nobel Peace Prize was to give him much-deserved recognition. At the age of eighty-one, Cassin was among the prize’s oldest recipients. Aase Lionæs, chair of the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament in 1968, had been a Norwegian delegate to the United Nations when the General Assembly first considered the formation of the Commission on Human Rights. She was personally familiar with Cassin and his work. In her presentation speech on December 10—the twentieth anniversary of the General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—she recognized the difficulty of defining human rights in an intercultural context and congratulated Cassin for his primary role in that achievement.

Along with the honor of the Nobel Prize, Cassin received a cash award of earnings from Alfred Nobel’s original bequest. He fulfilled a longtime hope by establishing the International Institute of Human Rights at Strasbourg as a center for human rights documentation, communication, and research. During 1968, Cassin and his supporters had promoted his candidacy for the prize with founding the institute as a primary objective.

More important, Cassin’s prize focused attention on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and on international human rights efforts in general. The declaration was a lofty, idealistic, carefully framed document that had endured twenty years. Human rights violations had by no means ceased by 1968, the International Human Rights Year, but the declaration had formed the basis for a growing international dialogue setting uniform standards and attempting to effect enforcement or, at the least, to influence the behavior of sovereign governments. Nobel Peace Prize;René Cassin[Cassin]
Human rights;United Nations
Commission on Human Rights, U.N.

Further Reading

  • Buergenthal, Thomas, Dinah Shelton, and David P. Stewart. International Human Rights in a Nutshell. 3d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group, 2002. Describes the essential contents of regional and international human rights agreements, ranging from the U.N. Charter to European, inter-American, and African documents on human rights. Includes a section on the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Excellent discussion of the place of the covenant in the broader field of human rights. Index.
  • Cassese, Antonio, ed. U.N. Law/Fundamental Rights: Two Topics in International Law. Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands: Sijthoff & Noordhoff, 1979. This volume contains fifteen essays by internationally diverse scholars of international law. The outlook is realistic, factual, and unrelentingly objective.
  • Commission to Study the Organization of Peace. The U.N. and Human Rights. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1968. Issued the year of Cassin’s award, this official report includes documents from the canon of U.N. law and a supplementary history by a member of the commission’s executive committee. The discussion of the draft committee under Roosevelt depicts the tension between the lofty ideals and practical challenges of human rights work.
  • Del Russo, Alessandra Luini. International Protection of Human Rights. Washington, D.C.: Lerner Law Books, 1971. A legalistic approach to the implementation of human rights enforcement, this book discusses the U.N. Commission and the European Court, including specific cases. Appendixes include relevant documents.
  • Donnelly, Jack. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. 2d ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003. This philosophical inquiry into the meaning of human rights and the policy contexts in which human rights operates is recommended for advanced students. References, index.
  • Frankel, Marvin E., with Ellen Saideman. Out of the Shadows of Night: The Struggle for International Human Rights. New York: Delacorte Press, 1989. Written by two human rights attorneys, this is an empirical study of individuals and groups worldwide facing human rights violations and efforts taken on their behalf. Appendixes include international covenants and a listing of human rights organizations.
  • Holleman, Warren Lee. The Human Rights Movement: Western Values and Theological Perspectives. New York: Praeger, 1987. This is a short theoretical discussion of human rights in the context of modern Western policy making. Holleman views history in terms of ideological movements and conflicts: West versus East, individual versus collective, national versus global, and secular versus religious.
  • Nickel, James W. Making Sense of Human Rights: Philosophical Reflections on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. In this extended philosophical discussion, Nickel demonstrates a deep appreciation of the events and individuals that have shaped thought about human rights and their expression as well as the Declaration of Human Rights and its interpretation.
  • Osmanczyk, Edmund Jan. The Encyclopedia of the United Nations and International Agreements. Edited by Anthony Mango. 3d ed. 4 vols. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis, 2003. Provides brief but detailed entries on a variety of international organizations and agreements applicable on a global level.
  • Sherwood, Robert, ed. Peace on Earth. New York: Heritage House, 1949. This volume consists of articles by eleven figures from the United Nations’ formative years. A short piece by Eleanor Roosevelt is idealistic and rhetorical, reflecting her hope for speedy ratification of the covenants. Appendixes include documents and biographical notes.
  • Tolley, Howard, Jr. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1986. This is a definitive work on the commission from its establishment through 1986. Tolley clearly delineates the commission’s goals, functions, activities, and accomplishments, and provides generous statistical information on national participation.

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