US-Asia Law Institute convenes East Asian law experts to commemorate Jerome Cohen’s retirement

On October 6, the Law School’s US-Asia Law Institute (USALI), for which Professor Jerome Cohen served as founding faculty director, held a virtual event paying tribute to the world-renowned senior expert on East Asian law. Earlier this year, Cohen, who turned 90 in July, officially retired from teaching at NYU Law after 30 years on the faculty. The Jerome A. Cohen Professorship of Law was recently established in his honor. 

Jerome Cohen
Jerome Cohen

Cohen launched his remarkable legal academic career at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1960, he ignored conventional wisdom by accepting a Rockefeller Foundation grant to study China, at a time when China was closed to most other countries and Chinese legal studies were an arcane discipline. Soon moving to Harvard Law School, Cohen played a leading role in introducing East Asian legal systems and perspectives into US legal teaching and eventually became the first Western lawyer to practice in Beijing. At the same time, he pressed the US government to pursue détente with China; the two countries finally established diplomatic relations in 1979. In the years since, Cohen has advocated tirelessly for the rule of law in China, particularly regarding its criminal justice system.

Reflecting Cohen’s wish not to be the subject of numerous encomiums on the occasion of his retirement from teaching, the USALI virtual event featured instead three mini-panels on topics central to Cohen’s work: public international law, arbitrary detention, and the development of democracy and the rule of law in East Asia. Cohen took part in each conversation. Prominent participants included Hisashi Owada, former president of the International Court of Justice; Song Sang-Hyun, former president of the International Criminal Court; and Ko-Yung Tung, former general counsel and vice president of the World Bank, in addition to other experts, some of whom are quoted below. Despite Cohen’s aversion to public praise, many of the speakers paid brief tribute to his storied career anyway.

Selected remarks

José Alvarez, Herbert and Rose Rubin Professor of International Law: “As a scholar, Jerry has written not just about arcane matters of interest to academics. He has wrestled with the most important, difficult issues of the day, such as threats to international peace in the region involving, for instance, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or certain islands in the South China Sea, [and] threats to human rights defenders….  Jerry's career shows how a single individual can make a difference, in no small part by building lasting institutions that carry on his work.”

Ma Ying-jeou LLM ’76, former president of the Republic of China (Taiwan): “Jerry was my SJD dissertation advisor in 1978 at Harvard Law School. After I became president of the [Republic of China] in 2008, he asked me what I learned from the US that I thought was most valuable for Taiwan. I instantly replied, ‘Protection of human rights.’ Taiwan's transition from a country under martial law to a full democracy took more than 30 years. The American influence played a vital role. In the last 60 years, at least 1 million Taiwan students have studied in the US, and many have come back to Taiwan to support the transition. I was just one example.”

Sharon Hom ’80, Executive Director of Human Rights in China: “How much poorer our understanding of China would be without the field of Chinese legal studies that Jerry pioneered and developed.... Who else has so persistently, in the face of ‘Hong Kong is dead’ proclamations, continued to post incisive, necessary legal and political and moral questions…to remind that so much can and needs to be done?”

Watch the video of the event (2 hr, 13 min):

Posted November 11, 2020