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Abstract: As practitioners, students, and enthusiasts of diplomacy, we are the heirs of two conferences held in the Hague in the early 20th century and of the pacifist vision of one man, Czar Nicolas II. These conferences, which produced regulations of the Jus in Bello, an international arbitral jurisdiction, a multilateral practice of diplomacy still used, and the magnificent Peace Palace, have had a limited short-term efficiency, but a considerable echo in the following centuries.
Walking through the intricacies of the Peace Palace is a remarkable experience. The imposing baroque building in The Hague houses the International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the Palace Library. Opened in 1913, the Palace is filled with magnificent works of art. The decoration is so opulent, so rich in the number of works that it is easy to not notice some of them. However, there is one work that cannot be missed. A three-ton vase made of jasper, with subtle shades of green, ochre, and white. This vase was donated by Tsarist Russia as a symbol of its commitment to what this palace represented, namely the establishment of an international diplomatic and legal system to ensure peace. Indeed, the construction of the palace was decided following the first Hague Peace Conference in 1899, and it was supposed to house a Permanent Court of Arbitration, envisaged following the said first conference. The first was because a second conference followed in 1907, bringing together more nations and going further in laying the foundations of what was to be an international legal order of which the League of Nations and then the United Nations system were the heirs. It is no surprise that one of the most monumental works of art in the palace was donated by Russia. We owe the holding of these conferences to Tsar Nicholas II who took the initiative and proposed the idea to the elites of the late 19th century. Let us see why Tsarist Russia was at the origin of a draft system of multilateral diplomacy and the legalization of relations between States, the echoes of which still reach us over 120 years later.
Was the Czar pacifist and humanist, or pragmatic and tactical?
On 28 August 1898, Count Mikhail Muraviev, the Russian Foreign Minister, sent the “Rescript for Peace” of his Tsar, Nicholas II, to the embassies of the various nations in St Petersburg. This document emphasised the need for civilised societies to reduce arms races and to seek ways to lessen the calamities that plague the world, and it also strongly emphasised the need to maintain a general state of peace. Finally, this rescript contained the call for the establishment of a conference on Arbitration and Disarmament. Given the historical situation, it is not surprising that it was the Tsar who took the initiative for such a peace conference. Relations between European nations at that time were extremely tense, and Russia was in no position to compete with its European neighbours. Suffering from industrial backwardness (which it was in the process of catching up with) and having suffered a major defeat in the Crimean War, Tsarist Russia had everything to lose if a major conflict broke out in the more heavily armed and industrialised Europe. Moreover, even outside Europe, Russia was in confrontation with other nations. Japan was a strong enemy during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. This war ended with a defeat for Russia. This image of a weak Russia was quite popular, as illustrated by the writings of Robert F Raymond, in 1911 in the American newspaper “The advocate of peace“, about the Tsar’s proposal to organise a peace conference: “The world had regarded the whole project as a manifestation of the harmless idiosyncrasy of the weak ruler of a semi-civilised people”. The Tsar’s government could therefore easily benefit from a multilateral diplomatic system that would prevent armed conflicts and facilitate Russia’s industrialisation and modernisation without having to fear the horrors of war with a militarily advanced neighbour.
However, this explanation is not the only one that motivated the Tsar to convene these conferences. Nicholas II was filled with pacifist ideas, he read the works of Tolstoy, the great pacifist of the 19th/20th century was inspired by the book by Bertha Von Suttner “Lay down your arms”, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905, and was impressed by the work of a Warsaw banker, Ivan Bloch, who considered in 1897 that war in this modern world was no longer possible to resolve international disputes. In this axiom of Bloch’s, we find the idea that may have induced the Tsar’s willingness to set up a system of arbitration for international disputes. Even if this call for a peace conference was seen by some pragmatic cynics as an attempt by a weak nation to avoid confronting a stronger one, the Tsar was seen as an apostle of peace among bellicose European leaders. This is certainly what John Mack explains in his 2004 article “Nicholas II and the ‘Rescript for peace’ of 1898: apostle of peace or shrewd politician?” Mack presents the journalistic coverage of the reactions to his Rescript in Belgian, German and English newspapers, and highlights the acclaim the Tsar received and the hope the conference represented for world peace. He would lose this aura between the two conferences due to the repression of the 1905 Revolution and the War with Japan.
The legacy of the conferences, an echo still audible in our international institutions
As we know, the 20th century was marked by two of the most brutal conflicts known to mankind. The Tsar’s wishful thinking, unfortunately, did not materialise following the conferences of 1899 and 1907. However, their legacy is not to be dismissed. They laid the foundations for later uses. The final act of the 1899 conference, summarising the work of the various commissions, tells us that three conventions were adopted, as well as three declarations. These conventions are the Convention for the Peaceful Adjustment of International Differences, the Convention Regarding the Laws and Customs of War on Land and the Convention for the Adaptation to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of the Geneva Convention of 22 August 1864. The declarations include bans on certain weapons such as the launching of projectiles from flying balloons, asphyxiating weapons or gases and the use of ammunition that expanded or flatten the body. Thus, we see the beginning of regulation on the Jus in Bello, the law during wartime, and this with the agreement of the strong military powers of the time. Nevertheless, no concrete text was adopted concerning arms races, only a few evasive declarations of intent. The 1907 conference brought some substantial modifications and went deeper, especially on technical matters of naval warfare, but only concretely acted on the conventions taken in 1899 and increased their number of signatories.
Beyond the conventions and the regulations of war, the conferences tried to tackle the origin of conflicts by imposing a mechanism for the peaceful settlement of international disputes through arbitration. In the eponymous convention of 1899, the need for good offices and mediation by third states is strongly emphasised. The innovation lies in Article 20 of this convention, which established the Permanent Court of Arbitration, currently sitting in the Peace Palace. The 1907 conference attempted to create an International Court of Justice, with more power over States in the resolution of disputes, but the conference participants could not agree on the modalities for the appointment of judges and preferred to strengthen the 1899 convention by including more states parties.
Those conferences were the prequel of great multilateral institutions which developed through the 20th century. The conference of 1899 lasted for 72 days and brought together 26 States, mainly European. While the one of 1907 reunited 43 nations and lasted around 140 days. The last conference was less Eurocentric and brought in nations of Latin America in this new diplomatic game. Such meetings, with diplomats from all over the world working together on various issues, conventions, and declarations in dedicated committees, are a distant echo that inspired the institutionalisation of modern international organisations, led by the United Nations. Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate and philanthropist who financed the construction of the Palace, wanted to create a temple of peace. Unfortunately, his work came to an end when dark years began in Europe. But the legacy of these conferences endured the wars of the continent, the magnificent Palace still stands in The Hague and the institutions within it are more important than ever.
Amos S. Hershey. Convention for the Peaceful Adjustment of International Differences. The American Journal of International Law, 1908. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/jstor-2186557.
Bertha von Suttner | Peace Palace. https://www.vredespaleis.nl/peace-palace/from-the-archives/bertha-von-suttner/?lang=en. Consulted on the 8th of October 2022.
History | Peace Palace. https://www.vredespaleis.nl/peace-palace/history/?lang=en. Consulted on the 28th of September 2022.
MACK, JOHN. « NICHOLAS II AND THE “RESCRIPT FOR PEACE” OF 1898: APOSTLE OF PEACE OR SHREWD POLITICIAN? » Russian History, vol. 31, no 1/2, 2004, p. 83‑103.
RAYMOND, ROBERT F. « Hague Conferences and World Peace ». The Advocate of Peace (1894-1920), vol. 73, no 4, 1911, p. 83‑87.
Simpson, Gerry. Great Powers and Outlaw States: Unequal Sovereigns in the International Legal Order. 1re éd., Cambridge University Press, 2004. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511494185.
Treaties, States parties, and Commentaries – Final Act of the Hague Peace Conference, 1899 – Final Act -.https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/Article.xsp?action=openDocument&documentId=8FCF14D950797012C12563CD00515C0A. Consulted on the 28th of September 2022.