René Cassin was born on October 5, 1887, in Bayonne, of a Jewish family. After reading law in college, he became a lawyer at the Paris bar in 1914. Shortly afterwards, he was mobilized to fight in the First World War and gravely injured in the Battle of the Marne.
He returned to civilian life in 1917 and founded the Federal Union of the Injured and War Victims. After becoming an associate professor of law in 1919, he began teaching at Lille University and was elected in 1922 chairman of the Federal Union of the Mutilated and Widows of War. At the time, Cassin dedicated much of his tune to the cause of war veterans. His efforts were largely successful, and the Veteran’s Card was created later that decade.
From 1924 to 1938, René Cassin was a member of the French Delegation at the League of Nations, where he pressed for the development of institutions aimed at helping to resolve international conflict. In 1929, he chaired the Superior Council for Wards of the Nation. In 1938, he opposed the Munich Accords and on multiple occasions denounced the threat posed by the Third Reich.
Soon after the French armistice, René Cassin heard about de Gaulle’s speech to the French on June 18 and immediately departed for London to rally the Free French. His boundless patriotism, his recognized legal skills, and his fame all across France made him a valuable asset to de Gaulle. Cassin was to be the legal expert of Free France, a true republican conscience able to prove that the armistice signed by Pétain and his henchmen was unconstitutional and illegitimate. Cassin was one of the main forces behind the agreement signed on August 7, 1940 with Churchill by which the British government officially recognized Free France. In the summer of 1940, he prepared the creation of the Council for the Defense of the Empire and became its permanent secretary. As the head of legal affairs for Free France, he also drafted the statutes of the Order of the Liberation, created on November 17, 1940.
In September, 1941, Cassin – who by then was a regular guest on BBC French-language programs – was named Commissary to Justice and Public Education in the National French Committee. He will work from Alger after august 1943, at the helm of the Judicial Committee of Free France, at the Consultative Assembly, and, from May 1944, at the Commission for Legislation and Reform of the State. As a member of the latter, he was tasked with confirming the legal validity of a number of ordinances taken by the representatives of Free France. He was also, between 1943 and 1945, the French representative in the international committee investigating war crimes.
After France was liberated, Cassin became a vice-president of the State Council, a position he was to hold until 1960, when de Gaulle named him a member of the French Republic’s Constitutional Council. In 1958, Cassin chaired the Consultative Committee tasked with writing the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic.
Cassin had a brilliant career in France, but his influence extended worldwide. As the French representative at the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, René Cassin was among the main writers of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, alongside Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1959, he became a member of the European Court of Human Rights, which he co-lead in 1959, and chaired from 1965 to 1968.
On December 10, 1968, Cassin was granted a Nobel Peace Prize. He died in 1976 at the age of 89. On October 5, 1987, a century after he was born, his ashes were transferred to the Pantheon, where he lies now close to Jean Moulin, who headed France’s domestic resistance networks.
Cassin was the author of two great books: Of Thought and Action (1972), and Men Who Started From Scratch (1974). Cassin was Grand Croix of the Legion of Honor, Croix de
Guerre 1914-1918, Commander of the Order of Academic Palms, Companion of the Liberation, and held a Military Medal as well as the Resistance Medal.
A resistant from the earliest days of the war, the man who Général de Gaulle liked to refer to as Monsieur le professeur was a tireless advocate for peace. A humanist and passionate defender of human rights, this brilliant intellectual better than anybody understood the indissoluble strength of the link between peace and law: “There will be no peace on this planet for as long as human rights continue to be infringed in some corner of it.” His drive was the struggle against injustice. He was a man of doctrine who never ceased to place notions of morality and justice above all else, including the law.
(by Margaux MIGNARD)