A world-recognized expert in international commercial transactions and dispute settlement procedures, Willem Vis was born in Utrecht in the Netherlands and read law, economics and philosophy at Leyden, Nijmegen, Strasbourg and Magdelen College, Oxford. He graduated from Leyden University and Nijmegen University in the Netherlands.
Professor Vis began to work for European co-operation in 1957 as a member of the Council of Europe Secretariat, in its human rights and legal affairs directorates, and later, in 1965, became Deputy Secretary-General of the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) in Rome. In 1968 he moved to the United Nations Secretariat in New York, where he became Senior Legal Officer, then Chief of the International Trade Law Branch of the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs, and Secretary of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL).
He served as Executive Secretary of the Vienna Diplomatic Conference that created the United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods. He helped craft the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules.
He was Representative of the Netherlands to the UN Commission on International Trade Law and served as Chair of its Working Group on International Payments.
Professor Vis served on the faculty of Pace University School of Law from 1980 until his death in 1993. At Pace, he continued to participate in the development of international commercial law, and was founding director of the Pace Institute of International Commercial Law.