08 June 2015

CONFERENCE REPORT: “International Law and Arbitration. From the Hague Conferences to the League of Nations. Global and Belgian Perspectives” (University of Antwerp, June 2, 2015) (by Dr. Judit Beke-Martos)

(seminar presenters; source: dr. Judit Beke-Martos)

CONFERENCE/SEMINAR REPORT: “International Law and Arbitration. From the Hague Conferences to the League of Nations. Global and Belgian Perspectives” (University of Antwerp,June 2, 2015) (by Dr. Judit Beke-Martos)


The Research Unit Political History of the University of Antwerp on June 2, 2015 organized an informal seminar entitled “International Law and Arbitration. From the Hague Conferences to the League of Nations. Global and Belgian Perspectives.” The idea was to bring together a group of interested professionals from various disciplines for an interesting and stimulating discussion and exchange of ideas. Such occasions can be very fruitful and useful.

The mid-size group of professors, interested researchers, postdoc fellows, doctoral students and master students from the fields of history, law and political science gathered in an impressive room at the University of Antwerp on that Tuesday morning. The organizer of the event, Henk De Smaele warmly welcomed all participants and introduced the three speakers.

Maartje Abbenhuis, Associate Professor of History at the University of Auckland in New Zealand spoke first. In her talk entitled “A Global History of the Hague Peace Conferences, 1898 – 1914” she shared the preliminary findings of her current research project for which she had been awarded the prestigious Marsden Grant of New Zealand’s Royal Society in 2013. During this three-year undertaking, now in its second year, Professor Abbenhuis aims to emphasize the significance of the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conferences as well as the preparatory works for the third one foreseen for 1915, which never took place. She finds that the role of these events in shaping the ideas on global responsibility is underrepresented in today’s scholarship. Her starting point is a rescript of Czar Nicolas II, who in 1898 called for a conference on – broadly phrased – disarmament. Abbenhuis claims that the mixed responses from both the media and the world leaders at the time already prejudice the potential significance of the subsequent 1899 Hague Conference. She examines the actual outcome of this first Conference in statistical terms as well (a total of 96 delegates meeting for two months and creating three conventions and three declarations) and compares it to the following Conference of 1907 (46 governments sending their respective delegates, thereby nearly doubling the previous participation, sitting for four months and resulting in thirteen conventions and one declaration). Acknowledging that the 1907 Conference was a huge media event, which attracted governments that wished to pursue their individual domestic agenda on a world forum rather than engage in the talks on peace and war, Abbenhuis nevertheless argues that this event also gave room for new players on the international stage who had not been part of the Great Powers so determinative in the 19th century, and that it created a public consciousness of the international law of war.

Vincent Genin, PhD candidate at the Université of Liège, continued the Seminar with his talk – in French, entitled “Juristes, parlementaires et diplomates en Belgique dans le processus menant aux Conférences de la Paix de la Haye de 1875 à 1899/1907” focusing on the Belgian perspective of international arbitration. More specifically, he gave a brief insight into the history of the Belgian regulation’s development and its participants’ take on the role and the institution of international arbitration. He elaborated on the fairly early adoption of international arbitration in municipal law by the Belgian Parliament in 1875, making Belgium one of the first countries to do so, even though the members of its own government were skeptical about it and fearful of its inevitable interference with the country’s sovereignty. Genin introduced Professor Edouard Descamps’ activities and achievements in the preparation of the regulation on international arbitration and elaborated on how this whole process during the last third of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century had been complex. He summarized by arguing that, from the Belgian perspective, the process of establishing and accepting international arbitration had three main players, who for various reasons formed this debated: England, as a fairly isolated yet significant world power whose own evaluation among the European states changed during this period; the USA, which for the first time claimed its place among Europe’s leading powers and subsequently went on to play a major role in the regulation of international relations; and Italy, as the first country to domestically legislate on international arbitration and also the one representing or highlighting the religious divide between Catholics and Protestants, a significant question in this debate.

Maarten Van Alstein, a researcher at the Flemish Peace Institute (Vlaams Vredesinstituut) was the last speaker. In his talk “A Realist View: The Belgian Diplomatic Elite and the League of Nations” he focused on the Belgian foreign policy and its relation to the League of Nations after the First World War, highlighting the Belgian activism despite neutrality. As it was observed during the discussion, Belgium’s approach towards the League – very nicely introduced by Dr. Van Alstein – was motivated by fear and at more than one occasion, important decisions were made with the primary purpose of securing a guarantee of protection by both the French and the English. This talk examined a timeframe, which Van Alstein divided into two periods, the first between 1919 and 1923, the era of skepticism towards such an international cooperation and the period between 1924 and 1930, where there was already some support for the League, yet politicians remained realistic in their day-to-day decisions. The skepticism may in part be deducted from the disappointment Belgium experienced at Versailles which they had thought of as an opportunity for their national causes. At that stage, since security was Belgium’s number one concern, the League seemed like a risk to the Belgian interests. The only mention of the League back then was Belgium’s wish to have the seat of the League in Brussels, but even that proposal had the underlying consideration of security, as such a location would be better protected and thereby less likely to be attacked. As of 1924 Belgium changed its policy to achieve their persisting goal of securing protection and the League turned from risk into an opportunity. Belgium signed both the 1924 and the 1925 Geneva Protocols as well as the Briand-Kellogg Pact, and established arbitration treaties with several states. The politicians’ realism could nevertheless be observed since though they were positive towards obligatory arbitration, they also acknowledged that it was incapable of solving everything. It was in Locarno that Belgium finally received the guarantee of protection from the English, which it had strived for all those years, and for which it had practically given up its neutrality to support several treaties. Despite the line of development throughout the examined timeframe, by the mid-1930s, Locarno was no longer of such importance and Belgium returned to its policy of independence.  

An interesting and stimulating discussion followed the talks with fruitful exchanges between the neighboring disciplines of law and history and their respective take on this time and events, as well as the possible significance of freemasonry, and the obvious added value of examining the international events from a purely domestic perspective. 

Dr. Beke-Martos (b. 1984) teaches at the University of Mannheim and is the Assistant Director of the Law & Language Center at the FSU Jena, in Germany. She is currently a visiting researcher at the Ghent Legal History Institute, devoting her time to legal history in Europe during the 19th century in a comparative and international perspective. She holds a J.D. and a Ph.D. in Law from the Eötvös Loránd University and an LL.M. in US and Global Business Law from Suffolk University Law School in Boston, MA.

(image source: dr. Judit Beke-Martos)

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