Obituary: Judge Manfred Lachs

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Manfred Lachs, judge and writer, born Stanislawow Poland 21 April 1914, Director Legal and Treaties Department Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1947-60, Professor Academy of Political Science Warsaw 1949-52, Chairman Legal Committee UN General Assembly 1949, 1951, 1955, Professor of International Law University of Warsaw 1952-93, Legal Adviser to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland 1960-66, Director Institute of Legal Sciences Polish Academy of Sciences 1961-67, Judge International Court of Justice 1967-93 (President 1973-76), died The Hague 14 January 1993.

MANFRED LACHS, a Judge of the International Court of Justice, was one of the outstanding international lawyers of this century. He was also exceptionally admired for his personal qualities. More than most people his career was wound up with the tumultuous events of the 20th century. He was a survivor - physically and politically - who dedicated his life to international law.

Studying in Vienna at the time, he survived the Nazi invasion of Poland, in which all of his family were killed. He came to London, studied at the London School of Economics, joined the Polish Government in Exile and saw military service. The end of the Second World War saw the publication of his first book and work at the Nuremberg war trials.

Lachs decided to return to Poland at the end of the war and began a career in the foreign service of his country. But he spent a great deal of this time abroad, at the United Nations. There he served as Chairman of the Sixth (Legal) Committee of the General Assembly in 1949, 1951 and 1955; and in 1962 was elected Chairman of the United Nations Legal Sub- Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. It was under his leadership that the pioneering instruments of the United Nations in that field were adopted - instruments which established the principle that successful space activity was not a prelude to legal appropriation of celestial bodies. He had a passionate interest in the legal aspects of space all of his life, combining it later with a more general interest in the role of technological change on the role of international law.

Whatever Lachs undertook, he did with vigour and commitment. In 1961 he was elected a member of the International Law Commission, and took a leading part in the commission's work on treaties and on state succession. Through his diplomatic skills he retained the confidence of his government, while being regarded by his colleagues at the United Nations as a skilful and moderate international lawyer rather than a spokesman for Communism. He was elected a Judge of the International Court of Justice in 1966 with an unprecedented majority, commanding the confidence of West and East alike. That confidence was reflected in the spread of universities which chose to honour him with honorary doctorates. The long list shows the esteem in which he was held from (inter alia) Algiers to Connecticut, Bucharest to Vancouver, Brussels to Silesia.

Lachs was elected to two further periods on the International Court, becoming President in 1973. He was shortly to have retired after exceptionally long service. He arrived at the court at a difficult time. The socialist countries did not accept the relevance of third-party adjudication. And the newly independent countries were suspicious that classic international law represented Western interests. The court had just given its judgment in the South-west Africa Cases, in which it held itself precluded from pronouncing upon the merits. Lachs never accepted the particular view of judicial caution underlying that finding, and embarked upon a skilful diplomatic drive to persuade Third World countries that the court could help the resolution of disputes all over the world.

During his presidency he showed that the court could establish cordial links with the United Nations but maintain its independence. He also fostered the relations between the court and the Netherlands. Advocates before the court had reason to believe that it was necessary to carry Lachs with them. His views nearly always represented the majority. The consensus-building and law development that he favoured is represented by such diverse cases as the Nuclear Tests Case, Legal Consequences for States of the Continued Presence of South Africa in Namibia, Burkina Faso / Republic of Mali Frontier Dispute (and the Arbitration Award in Guinea v Guinea Bissau).

He believed in advancing his ideas - liberalism, sensitivity, moderation - through every avenue. Aside from his heavy work on the court, Lachs produced academic work of the highest quality. He wrote books on war crimes, the Indochina agreements, the Polish-German frontier, and the Law of Outer Space. He gave the General Course on Public International Law at the Hague Academy. His book on The Teacher in International Law (1982) had a remarkable impact. It dazzled all who read it with its erudition, historical knowledge and contemporary insight.

Lachs was fluent in five languages and seemed imbued in the culture and politics of a myriad of countries. He was interested in, and extraordinarily knowledgeable about, current thinking in every foreign ministry. Whether addressing students or having dinner with friends, his eyes would sparkle as he reported some happening or legal idea, and awaited comment upon it.

His delight at the debate he had opened was apparent. It was fitting that Judge Oda, delivering an address at his funeral on behalf of the International Court of Justice, described Manfred Lachs as a great man of the 20th century.

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