Professor Harold Hongju Koh of Yale Law School has been named the 2023 recipient of the Raphael Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal by the Bolch Judicial Institute of Duke Law School. Professor Koh was honored during a program on Monday, Oct. 9, 2023, at 12:30 p.m. at Duke Law School. The event was recorded and archived on Duke Law’s YouTube channel.
Koh is internationally recognized as a leading expert in public and private international law, national security law, and human rights. He is a prolific writer and scholar whose career has spanned numerous positions in academia and public service. He served as the 15th Dean of Yale Law School from 2004 until 2009, when he took a leave of absence to serve as legal adviser of the Department of State in the Obama administration. In 2013, he returned to Yale Law School as the Sterling Professor of International Law, where he continues to teach and represent individuals who have suffered human rights abuses. He is currently among the lawyers representing Ukraine at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague asking the court to declare Russia in violation of three international treaties.
“Professor Koh is an outstanding exemplar of the core ideals embodied by the Lemkin Medal,” said Paul W. Grimm, the David F. Levi Professor of the Practice of Law and Director of the Bolch Judicial Institute at Duke Law School. “He has long used the law as a means to peacefully hold human rights abusers accountable, and his scholarship, writings, and advocacy have meaningfully advanced the rule of law.”
The Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal honors individuals who seek to advance and protect the rule of law in their everyday work. It is named for Raphael Lemkin, a one-time Duke Law faculty member and one of the leading 20th century scholars of human rights, and is awarded by the director of the Bolch Judicial Institute in consultation with the Institute’s leadership boards. Benjamin Ferencz, the last living Nuremberg Trial prosecutor, received the inaugural Lemkin Medal in 2020. Duke Law Professor Jim Coleman received the Lemkin Medal in 2022.
“Harold Koh is one of the great figures in human rights and international law,” said David F. Levi, president of the American Law Institute and director emeritus of the Bolch Judicial Institute at Duke Law. “He has made huge contributions as a scholar, a teacher, the leader of a great law school, in distinguished public service, and as an advocate. Whether in Haiti or Ukraine or elsewhere, when he sees injustice, he must act to end it using his formidable skills and passion, using the law. It is hard to imagine how he has accomplished so much in one lifetime. The Lemkin Medal is a fitting tribute to his devotion to the rule of law and the tremendous value and impact of his life’s work.”
Prof. Koh’s Work to Spread the “Bright Lights” of Freedom
Harold Hongju Koh was born in Boston to immigrant parents, whom he credits as the main inspiration for his life’s work. His parents grew up in Korea under Japanese colonial rule, where their freedoms were severely curtailed, and they were forbidden to speak their own language. When Korea was divided after World War II, his mother and her family had to hike for days to the border to escape North Korea.
In an essay for NPR in 2006, Koh recalled visiting North Korea after finishing his service with the U.S. State Department. He described the lights becoming brighter as the plane crossed from North into South Korea, a crossing that his mother had made many years ago.
“As we approached Seoul, suddenly the landscape glowed with millions of lights,” he wrote. “I realized that the only differences between the bright futures to the South and the dark futures of the North were the governments that ruled them. That is why I believe in the bright lights of freedom.”
Encouraged by his parents, Koh earned several degrees prior to entering the legal profession. In 1975, he earned his A.B. in Government from Harvard College, and in 1977, he earned a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Oxford University, where he was a Marshall Scholar. In 1980, he graduated from Harvard Law School, where he was Developments Editor of the Harvard Law Review. Following law school, he clerked for Judge Malcolm Richard Wilkey of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and Justice Harry A. Blackmun of the United States Supreme Court. He then worked as an attorney in private practice in Washington, D.C., and served as an Attorney-Adviser for the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Protecting and Defending the Rule of Law
In 1985, Koh began teaching at Yale Law School, the same institution where his parents have the shared distinction of being the first Asian American professors. In 1990, he argued his first human rights case at the international level after cofounding the Allard Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School. At that time, as Koh recalled for an interview for Cambridge University’s Eminent Scholars Archive, he had never before argued a case in a courtroom. Within the first year and half after founding the clinic, he argued more than 26 times. He has since presented scores of arguments in U.S. and international courts.
In 1996, Koh returned to Oxford University to serve as a visiting professor and to receive his M.A. in Philosophy Politics & Economics. The following year he was asked by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to serve as Assistant Secretary for Human Rights; he was confirmed by the Senate in 1998 and remained in that role for the remainder of the Clinton Administration. He then returned to Yale Law School and served as dean until 2009, when Secretary of State Clinton asked him to serve as the U.S. Department of State’s 22nd Legal Adviser. He was nominated by President Barack Obama to the position and confirmed by a full vote from the Senate in April 2009. At his nomination hearing before the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations, Senator John F. Kerry remarked:
Throughout his career, Dean Koh has been a fierce defender of the rule of law and human rights. A letter in support of Dean Koh from former high-ranking military officers was eloquent on this point. They wrote, ‘Dean Koh understands that it is not a rule of law if it is invoked only when it is convenient, and it is not a human right if it applies only to some people. He knows that our Nation is stronger and safer when our Government adheres to fundamental American values.
Clinton echoed these remarks in her review of Koh’s 2018 book The Trump Administration and International Law, writing that “both inside and outside the government, Harold Hongju Koh has long been one of our most powerful voices for human rights and the rule of law.”
At the heart of Koh’s scholarship and public service is an unyielding commitment to using the force of international law and international legal fora and processes to secure justice and advance the rule of law. In 2015, in an address to Duke Law School’s graduating class, Koh explained that while some view international law as constraining, he views it as freeing; it allows citizens of different countries to study and work abroad and engage in global markets.
“Some fear that if we engage the international system we will surrender our sovereignty, but sovereignty today means not retreating but proactively addressing problems that demand global solutions like climate change global health food security, internet governance, counterterrorism. If we don’t attack those problems together with international laws — our tool — we will have no global solutions,” he said.
Since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War in 2022, Koh has spoken and written extensively on how law and diplomacy — tools consistent with the rule of law — are effective at maintaining global order. Faced with a materially advantaged aggressor like Russia, Ukraine has garnered international support and resources through law.
“Russia’s short game is force; Ukraine’s long game is law, he explained in a June piece for Judicature International, a publication of the Bolch Judicial Institute of Duke Law. “Russia is talking about returning to the Soviet Union, and Ukraine is talking about Russia versus the world order.”
Commenting on the suits filed by Ukraine against Russia before the ICJ and the Permanent Court of Arbitration, Laurence R. Helfer, the Harry R. Chadwick Sr. Professor of Law at Duke University, highlighted Koh’s important and creative arguments demonstrating Russia’s violations of several multilateral treaties and the need for full reparation for Ukraine. “Russia’s repeated acts of aggression against Ukraine raise numerous violations of international law,” said Helfer, who also currently serves as the U.S. member of the UN Human Rights Committee. “International courts and tribunals have jurisdiction over some but not all of these violations. Professor Koh has been quite masterful in identifying the legal issues that can be litigated before these judicial and arbitral bodies.”
Koh has received numerous honorary degrees and awards for his human rights work. He has authored or coauthored nine books, published more than 200 articles, testified regularly before Congress, and litigated numerous cases involving international law issues in both U.S. and international tribunals. He is a Fellow of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an Honorary Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and a member of the Council of the American Law Institute.
Click here for Koh’s full biography.
About the Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal
The Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal honors individuals who work to protect the rule of law every day, taking steps both large and small to ensure liberty and justice for all. They are lawyers who fight for justice for clients, judges who follow the law even when it defies popular opinion, individual men and women who, despite great personal risks, stand up for due process and for legal systems that treat all people with fairness and dignity. By telling the stories of these remarkable individuals through events and personal interviews, the Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal program aims to remind us all of the power of an individual to make a difference.