A champion of human rights and international law, Harold Hongju Koh receives ܼѿȫ honorary degree

(photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

As a legal scholar, Harold Hongju Koh’s contributions in international and human rights law have helped transform the conduct of international relations. 

As a practising lawyer, he has both served under four presidents in the U.S. government – and litigated against it. And as a professor at Yale University, he draws on his knowledge and experience to teach and mentor the next generation of lawyers.

Today, for his deep commitment to the public interest and his vigorous advocacy for the rule of law and human rights, Koh will receive a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, from the ܼѿȫ.

Born in Cambridge, Mass., in 1954 to Korean parents, one of six children, Koh attended Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in government in 1975. He studied at the University of Oxford, then returned to Harvard for law school, completing his degree in 1980. 

During the first Reagan administration, he worked as an attorney adviser to the Office of Legal Counsel in the U.S. Department of Justice. (He would later serve in various roles under presidents Clinton, Obama and Biden). In 1985, he joined the faculty at Yale Law School, and almost two decades later became its dean.

In the classroom, Koh is known for his energetic and passionate presence. A journalist who had taken one of his classes described him in  as “a giant of a teacher,” while a group of Yale law students once called him “one of the brightest legal minds of his generation.”

Dr. J. Robert S. Prichard hoods Harold Hongju Koh (photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

As a legal adviser to government, Koh has not been shy to speak his mind. A paper he wrote in 1990 challenged the contention, held by the President George H.W. Bush, that as commander-in-chief, he could lead the U.S. into the Gulf War on his own authority. Koh argued that the U.S. Constitution required the president to consult with Congress beforehand.

Described as a rare scholar-practitioner, Koh has been especially active in human rights. In the early 1990s he led a group of Yale students in a successful suit against the U.S. government to free Haitian refugees who had qualified for political asylum in the U.S. but had been detained indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

, he called the U.S.’s diminished reputation as a global human rights leader “one of the most serious problems we as Americans face today,” citing as the cause a “series of unnecessary, self-inflicted wounds,” such as the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and permitting the torture of detainees. “In just a few short years we seem to have gone from what was a zero-tolerance policy toward torture to what now seems to be a zero-accountability policy,” he said.

As a solution, he recommended that the government recommit to telling the truth and to ending any human rights violated caused or supported by the U.S.. He also urged greater support for the UN and international law, including the International Criminal Court. He concluded by asking audience members to join him in working to “make America America again.”

, Koh credited his parents for spurring his interest in human rights, noting that they had grown up in Korea under Japanese rule, forbidden to speak Korean or even use their Korean names. Koh’s father had been a diplomat, and after South Korea’s 1961 military coup, was granted asylum in the U.S., where he took a teaching position at Yale.

“My father savoured freedom like he savoured fresh air,” Koh said. During his own career, Koh traveled to many different countries. “Everywhere I went,” he said, “Haiti, Indonesia, China, Sierre Leone, Kosovo – I saw in the eyes of thousands the same fire for freedom I had first seen in my father’s eyes.”

In his address today at Convocation Hall, which included graduating students from the Faculty of Law and the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, he called on them to “understand the difference between a government of laws and a government of individuals,” and urged them to stand for something. “If you find the principle that you will sacrifice for –that you are ready to fight and die for – it will become your calling, and why people remember you.”

Koh has received more than 30 awards for his human rights work. He has been a visiting professor at many universities, including twice at ܼѿȫ’s Faculty of Law. He has argued frequently before U.S. and international tribunals, including most recently as Counsel for Ukraine against Russia before the International Court of Justice. For his work, Koh has received lifetime achievement awards from Columbia and Duke Law Schools and the ABA International Law Section. The recipient of 18 honorary degrees, he is also the author of nine books and more than 200 articles.

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