Tobias Asser

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Tobias Asser was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role as co-founder of the Institut de Droit International and pioneer in the field of international legal relations. He shared the prize with Alfred Fried.

Tobias Asser
Tobias Asser Photo from the Nobel Foundation archive.

Full name: Tobias Michael Carel Asser
Born: 28 April 1838, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Died: 29 July 1913, the Hague, the Netherlands

The Hugo Grotius of his time

Jurist Tobias Asser helped to found the Institute of International Law in 1873, the first organisation to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1904). Asser was an expert on international civil law. In the 1890s he sought consensus for the drawing up of binding international agreements on the resolution of civil disputes, including those related to marriage, separation and divorce. Asser took active part in the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907, where he worked to expand and improve the Geneva Convention. But it was his efforts in the area of private law that were emphasised when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He maintained that knowledge of civil law across borders would promote peace. There was good reason that Tobias Asser was compared to his compatriot Hugo Grotius, founder of the field of modern international law in the 1600s.

The Hague Peace Conferences
Conferences held in 1899 and 1907 with the aim of achieving peaceful solutions to international disputes, primarily by arbitration and the establishment of an international court of justice.

"As a pioneer in the field of international legal relations, he has earned a reputation as one of the leaders in modern jurisprudence."

- Jørgen Løvland, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, 10 December 1911.

Civil law for peace

Tobias Asser was a pragmatic lawyer. While many of his contemporaries maintained that international regulations on civil law should be made as uniform as possible, Asser disagreed. He believed that each nation should retain its distinctive legislative character. He was most concerned with the practical resolution of cases. In Asser’s view, international regulations should be in place to resolve matters such as, for instance, a conflict over inheritance arising between spouses from different countries.

"The core of Asser’s life’s work, however, is the major role he has played in ensuring that efforts to establish international conventions in the sphere of international civil law have gotten well and smoothly underway."

- M.H. Lie, Adviser to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, 1911.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee and private law

Asser was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize only once. The Nobel Committee’s consultant wrote that international private law did not have the immediate significance for peace between nations as international law did. On the other hand, it required “a greater insight and deeper understanding of one’s own country’s law than a foreign country’s law; its cultivators must have a completely different scientific grounding if their work is to provide practical results for international brotherhood”. And Asser’s work gave practical results. It was such small steps to international understanding that the Norwegian Nobel Committee emphasised in 1911.

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Tobias Michael Carel Asser (April 28, 1838-July 29, 1913) was born in Amsterdam into a family with a tradition in the field of law, both his father and his grandfather having been well-established lawyers and his uncle having served as the Dutch minister of justice ...
Tobias Asser

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