By Michael Mocatta
René Cassin was born in 1887 to a Sephardi Jewish family in the South of France. A distant relative of Alfred Dreyfus, whose trial for treason electrified the world from 1894-1906, Cassin was always mindful of the potential for abuses of governmental power, and the need to constrain this power by providing individuals with rights – a concept that would become known as Human Rights. Cassin first showed his commitment to the rights of individuals as a leader of France’s veterans during and after the First World War. He himself had fought in the early stages of the war, and was demobilised after receiving serious injuries in battle. He devoted his time thereafter to advocacy on behalf of France’s veterans and the families of those who had died in the war. In the 1920s and 1930s, Cassin was a French delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva. There he witnessed the destructive power of the doctrine of ‘absolute state sovereignty’ which eventually undermined the League and became a contributing factor to the start of the Second World War.
From 1940, René Cassin was at the right hand of Charles de Gaulle’s ‘Free French’ government-in-exile in London. De Gaulle appointed Cassin as President of the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), the representative body of the Jews of North Africa, the Middle East and Persia. Cassin’s leadership enabled the AIU’s 100 schools to remain open to 50,000 Jewish students throughout the war. He would remain president of the AIU for 30 years. With the defeat of Nazi Germany, the whole world became fully aware of the horrors of the Holocaust. Cassin himself learned that 29 members of his family had been murdered by the Nazis. His response was to dedicate the rest of his life to the creation of an international system of human rights. In 1948, he co-drafted the United Nation’s response – a code of law that guaranteed the rights of the individual, and of groups like the Jews, in the face of over-mighty sovereign states.
In 1968, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role as lead jurist of this Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Cassin always maintained that the concept of human rights emerged from the same roots as his Judaism. A member of that generation whose response to war was to promote peace through international law, René Cassin integrated his life as a Jew with his life as a jurist. He is buried in the Pantheon in Paris, an honour bestowed by France only on those it considers to be its most significant ‘national heroes’.
[Acknowledgement: a version of this biography first appeared in the resource pack for the René Cassin charity ‘Making the Jewish case for Human Rights in the UK’, December 2018]
Michael Mocatta is a member of New North London Synagogue