Nobel Lecture*, July 18, 1906
The Development of the Hague Conventions of July 29, 1899
It will soon be seven years since the ninth Interparliamentary Conference1 met here in your capital city. It was a notable assembly whose participants will long remember the magnificent hospitality of Norway. Some time before that meeting the official representatives of the majority of European, American, and Asian powers had gathered at The Hague to discuss the most important questions affecting the law of nations; and on the fourth of August, just as our deliberations here were nearing their close, we received word of the actions taken by the Hague Conference2. Our assembly was the first to acclaim this great work, and several of our speakers paid it handsome tribute not far from here in the Chamber of the Norwegian Parliament. No one will deny that this first general congress of world powers was brought about by the efforts of the Interparliamentary Union. It is therefore hardly surprising that the Union should not only submit the resolutions of the Hague Conference to exhaustive discussion, but should also work for the convocation of a second conference. At our request, President Roosevelt has been kind enough to assume the initiative in this matter3. You must agree, then, that it would be difficult for one who has been secretary-general of the Interparliamentary Union for the past fifteen years and who has in this capacity been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, to select a more appropriate or topical subject than the work of the Hague Conference.
This great assembly of nations drew up three international conventions4. Today I shall confine myself to only one of these, that concerning the pacific settlement of international disputes. It can be divided into two parts: preservation of general peace, and international arbitration.
To keep the peace! What a noble and magnificent idea! How many hopes are stirred by the thought that this greatest of all ideals – the maintenance of peace – should be the objective of an international convention bearing the signatures of most of the nations of the world! How sad to relate, then, that it is precisely this part of the Hague Convention of July 29, 1899, which to date has been applied least. For it has averted neither the Boer War nor the Russo-Japanese Wars5, not to speak of colonial wars.
For the purpose of preserving general peace, the Convention established procedures for making offers of good offices and for mediation. The first entails an offer made by one or several nations, in the event of imminent war or during the course of actual war, to intercede between the belligerents in an effort to effect conciliation – a very useful procedure and one easily carried out, for all that is required is a diplomatic note. And since, under the terms of the Hague Convention, neither the offer of good offices nor its rejection can be considered an unfriendly act, all powers, especially those favorably disposed to one or the other of the adversaries, should be only too anxious to offer their services. It is highly probable that in most cases war could be avoided or ended. For discussions allow passion to subside; and to persuade alienated neighbors, or at least one of them, to listen to the voice of a conciliator, is a step in the direction of peace.
If we examine the Hague Convention carefully, we see that it considers the offer of good offices a duty of every nation. In other words, such offers should be made whenever a dispute becomes critical and threatens to explode into war. Article 27 is very clear on this point. Now not only have nations failed in this obligation, but, worse still, when at the beginning of the war between Russia and Japan, the President of the United States6 was said to be on the point of offering his good offices, the government-inspired Russian press declared that any such act would be regarded as unfriendly. Thus, in this one instance a double violation of the Convention took place: first, by the failure of any nation to offer its good offices, and second, by the Russian government’s semiofficial declaration that such an offer would be looked upon as an unfriendly act. But the Convention had already been violated previously, only a few months after the Hague Conference. No government, no head of state made any attempt to avert or arrest the Boer War. Civilization and morality have not yet influenced nations to consider inviolable a promise or agreement, solemnly signed and sealed, when it becomes part of international law. Ordinary citizens are obliged and, if need be, compelled by force to meet their commitments. But let higher obligations of an international order be involved, and governments repudiate them, more often than not with a disdainful shrug of the shoulders.
We can, however, record one very honorable exception: President Roosevelt, in spite of everything, persisted in offering his good offices to the Russians and Japanese. Neither party chose to condemn the offer as an unfriendly act. Exhausted by a terrible war, both accepted, and peace was concluded7 under the folds of the star-spangled banner. President Roosevelt was the first head of state to apply the rules of the Hague Convention concerning the preservation of general peace. Honor and glory to this eminent statesman!
Since the procedure of offering good offices can effectively contribute to the maintenance of peace, and since the powers seem reluctant to use it voluntarily, there should be a way of organizing it so that it may be applied in all cases. Good offices may be either offered or required. An offer is preferable, but it should not have to depend purely and simply on chance; nor should indifference, false pride, fear, or secret satisfaction at the sight of two nations tearing each other apart prevent this sacred obligation from being exercised in all its dignity. By the organization of good offices I mean the establishment of a convention under the terms of which the powers obliged to offer them would be designated for each individual case. The signatories of the Hague Convention could be arranged in groups of two or three, the individual groups being nominated in advance to act in given contingencies; in other words, every possible conflict would be covered by a group of states, of whom at least one would be obliged to offer its good offices. Since the number of warlike powers is fortunately limited, it is no difficult matter to determine what possibilities of war exist. The adoption of such a system would mean that hostilities could never break out without the adversaries first having been exhorted to listen to the voice of conciliation.
The second method contained in the Hague Convention for preserving peace is that of mediation. There is a subtle distinction between this method and the one just outlined: whereas good offices are intended primarily to assure preliminary conciliation, the mediating power may go so far as to propose terms of settlement. Everything I have just said about good offices holds true in the case of mediation. Here again, it is a great pity that the Conference, after devoting five articles to it, stopped halfway and did not make mediation compulsory. It should have been stipulated that the conflicting parties must, before opening hostilities, call upon one or more friendly powers to mediate in the dispute. Compulsory mediation was provided for in the Declaration of Paris of 1856; the seven contracting parties8 undertook to refer to mediation any dispute arising from the implementation of the agreement. Compulsory mediation was also provided for in the draft treaty of arbitration drawn up by the United States and Great Britain in 18979. These two examples alone give abundant proof that mediation can feasibly be incorporated on a compulsory basis in the Hague Convention. In acceding to this rule of mediation no power would in any way be abrogating its rights to another. For mediation is simply an attempt at conciliation like that which is insisted upon by many civil codes before a case can be taken to court. The mediator’s proposals are not a judgment but a simple, friendly presentation. The sovereignty of the states involved remains completely intact, and it would really take a peculiarly obstinate government, devoid of all moral sense and concern for intellectual values, to reject mediation in the face of impending war. The state ruled by such a government would place itself beyond the precincts of civilization.
Compulsory arbitration is a practical instrument of pacification and, as such, it can and should be enacted by the Hague Conference. By laying down the procedure and the rules for arbitration, by placing a permanent court of arbitration at the disposal of conflicting powers, the Conference has no more than made a start upon its task in the realm of international justice. All of this is discretionary and left to the goodwill of nations. What is more, the powers seem to be in no hurry to rally to the idea of general treaties of arbitration, for only three have concluded such treaties to date: Denmark, The Netherlands, and Italy10. It will be a long while yet, unfortunately, before the military powers recognize the principle accepted thousands of years ago in relations between individuals: that nations are obliged to submit their controversies to the processes of law.
In this sphere of arbitration treaties, the Hague Conference could introduce a ruling that certain categories of international disputes should be submitted to arbitration. In my opinion this is the most that can be hoped for at present – I repeat, in the sphere of arbitration treaties. It is likely that the fourteenth Interparliamentary Conference, which is to meet next week in London, will express this opinion11. Under such circumstances, military powers will still have too many opportunities and too many pretexts to unleash the horrors of war. This is what compulsory mediation could prevent. And even if this very simple and logical method were not accepted, then another possibility would still remain: compulsory contractual mediation, whereby nations having incomplete treaties of arbitration would be compelled to insert into these treaties the following clause which the United States and Great Britain had adopted in their draft treaty of 1897: “In the event a dispute arises which is not subject to arbitration under the terms of the present treaty, the contracting parties undertake to request the mediation of one or several friendly powers.” This formula would make an outbreak of war impossible without some attempt at conciliation having been made first. Now this is crucial. For it is hardly tenable that, once mediation has been accepted, agreement should not finally be reached. Peace negotiations between Japan and Russia were fraught with so many difficulties that success appeared to be out of the question; yet the voice of President Roosevelt prevailed in the end.
Let us restate the principal conclusions we have reached so far. We must:
(1) Organize offers of good offices.
(2) Substitute compulsory for optional mediation in the Convention of July 29, 1899.
(3) In some cases, that is to say when compulsory mediation is not accepted, declare that the mediation clause will always be inserted into every arbitration treaty, subject to the exclusion of certain disputes.
I should now like to consider the Hague Conference as an international political institution.
Before dispersing, the members of that first general congress of civilized states resolved to meet again at some future date. This is in effect the implication of the Final Act of the Conference, which stipulated that three questions12 be referred for examination to a subsequent conference, and furthermore that the governments concerned should study the question of limiting armed forces and that of the types and calibers of firearms, with a view to reaching agreement. This mention of agreement clearly presupposes a discussion of these problems at another conference. Thus the nations represented at the Conference of 1899, and those who later acceded, affirmed in principle that similar gatherings would be convened in the future. Certainly, one cannot dispute the fact that they are deliberative assemblies, since the first Hague Conference has yielded three important international conventions, a permanent court of arbitration, and an administrative council. We can, therefore, truly say that there is in existence an international political organization whose object is the regulation of common international problems. But this is neither the first nor the only such organization. The international offices for postal (Universal Postal Union) and telegraph services, for railways, and for the protection of intellectual properties are also international political organizations, created to serve particular interests common to the whole of the civilized world. I cite these offices situated in Bern to illustrate how general conferences of states can give rise to the establishment of international political institutions equipped with administrative machinery that function for the benefit of humanity in the same way that public authorities in our civilized states function.
Let us for a moment consider the Hague Conference from this point of view. You may perhaps have heard of the proposal submitted last year by the American Group to the Interparliamentary Conference at Brussels, that the latter should organize a kind of world parliament13. However alluring the picture of an amphictyonic council embracing all civilized nations may be, I do not believe that our efforts should be directed toward this end, an end whose realization can scarcely be glimpsed even in some dim and distant future. In any case, the Hague Conference can offer to mankind, to civilization, and to justice the same services that an international parliament could offer. And since it already exists, there is no need to create it. What is necessary is to perfect its organization and to ensure its ability to function properly.
In the first place the Conference must be convened. The best method of assuring this is to have it meet at regular intervals. Let it take place every three or every five years. There is no fear of an empty agenda! Nations are linked by so many conventions, agreements, understandings, so many practices and interests that these common concerns alone could fill the program of an entire conference.
Second, the Conference must be arranged in such a way that it can function effectively. For this reason neither the program of the Conference nor its decisions should be subject to unanimous approval. If the majority decides that a question be placed on the agenda, then it should be discussed regardless of any opposition. I grant you that, for the time being, resolutions would be binding only on nations who voted in their favor. But let the future attend to making them universally binding, and let us be satisfied if we reach the point where it will be impossible for one state to thwart the discussion of a question by obstruction or systematic opposition.
Finally, the Conference must be equipped with an administrative organization. This is absolutely vital for any Areopagus which disbands after completing its work but which is to reassemble at a later date. Such an organization presents no problems. As proof of this, I cite the international offices in Bern already mentioned; these are precisely administrative organs that function on behalf of the states forming the international unions charged with postal and telegraph services, railways, and the protection of literary and artistic works. It is scarcely to be expected that the member nations of the Hague Conference will immediately establish, on a similar scale, an office of international political affairs. But it is certainly possible to guarantee at least the continuity of the Hague Conference as an institution, both in terms of its existence and of its work. Among the duties which could be referred to such an administrative organ I mention the following:
(1) To communicate the decisions of the Conference to the governments of the states which have taken part.
(2) To invite other states to accede to such decisions.
(3) To receive and study claims arising from the implementation of the resolutions and conventions passed by the Hague Conference.
(4) To prepare a memorandum for the next Conference on the subject of these difficulties, if the states themselves have not provided some other method of resolving them.
(5) To prepare the next Conference.
(6) To convene the latter.
The organization in question could be set up in a variety of ways. The Office (president and secretaries) of the Conference, or a committee appointed by it, or a special administrative body such as the International Bureau instituted by the Convention of July 29, 1899 (Art. 22) – any of these could easily handle the assignments involved, especially the last named. For the two cases are highly analogous. Since the International Court of Arbitration is not in fact permanent because it sits only when its decisions are sought, a permanent office14 has been attached to it. By the same token, a similar office could be set up for the benefit of the Conference itself, which would be meeting only every three or five years.
But I do not wish to impose any longer on your kind attention. What I have said represents the thoughts of a practical politician. It is true that I am not one of those who laugh at utopias. The utopia of today can become the reality of tomorrow. Utopias are conceived by optimistic logic which regards constant social and political progress as the ultimate goal of human endeavor; pessimism would plunge a hopeless mankind into a fresh cataclysm. But though I take my place in the crowded ranks of the optimists, I draw a distinction between the aims which can be realized immediately and those for which we are not yet ready. Today one thing is certain: thanks to the marvellous inventions and discoveries of our era, the human spirit has finally awakened a social order long dormant: the solidarity of nations. This solidarity, spurred on by an irrepressible force to assert itself, must be protected in the exercise of its rights and duties. May the Hague Conference be its instrument! May the Conference act as its shield against the modern barbarians who would menace it. Civilization can justly rejoice in possessing in it an institution capable of advancing the aspirations and ideals of mankind. Let us wish this important Conference, so long and so impatiently awaited, every success and prosperity. May the second assembly and those which follow – upholders of the law and custodians of man’s happiness – develop, perfect, and consummate the great work so auspiciously – begun!
*Having requested and received an extension of time in which to discharge his obligation as a laureate, Dr. Gobat delivered his Nobel lecture three and a half years after receiving the prize. According to the Oslo Morgenbladet for July 19, 1906, he did so in German after being introduced by Mr. Løvland, chairman of the Nobel Committee, at the Nobel Institute in Oslo on July 18, 1906. The Morgenbladet remarks that many people attended even though it was the middle of summer. The French text, the only one available, on which this translation is based is taken from Les Prix Nobel en 1902: Supplément (Stockholm, 1907).
1. Meeting of the Interparliamentary Union, founded in 1888 through Passy and Cremer (peace laureates for 1901 and 1903) and composed of members of parliaments from various nations. The primary objective of the Union at this time was to promote, via governmental channels, the principle of solving international disputes by arbitration; it also studied other problems related to international law and to peace in general. For a good brief account of the Union and its relations with the universal peace congresses, see F.S.L. Lyons, Internationalism in Europe 1815-1914 (Leyden: A.W. Sythoff, 1963), pp. 325-330.
4. The three international conventions were: I. Convention for the pacific settlement of international disputes. II. Convention with respect to the laws and customs of war on land. III. Convention for the adaptation to maritime warfare of the principles of the Geneva Convention of August 22, 1864.
8. The Declaration of Paris, an agreement concerning rules of maritime warfare, was issued by the Congress of Paris which negotiated the Treaty of Paris after the Crimean War; the contracting parties were Austria, France, Great Britain, Prussia, Russia, Sardinia, and Turkey.
9. Signed by Secretary of State Richard Olney and British Ambassador Julian Pauncefote but not ratified by the United States Senate; the treaty was significant because it stated terms on which two nations might henceforth deal with each other.
10. Numerous specific treaties of arbitration had been concluded between various powers since 1899. But only Denmark, The Netherlands, Italy, and later Portugal were, up to the time of the 1907 Conference, willing to bind themselves to submit practically all disputes to arbitration.
14. This Bureau, established by Article 22 of Convention I, served the Court as a record office, as a channel of communication on court meetings, as administrator, and as depository of documents relative to actions by special tribunals.
Their work and discoveries range from cancer therapy and laser physics to developing proteins that can solve humankind’s chemical problems. The work of the 2018 Nobel Laureates also included combating war crimes, as well as integrating innovation and climate with economic growth. Find out more.