On the eve of the 20th century, representatives of 26 nations finalized a new set of constraints around the laws and customs of war. It happened at The Hague in the Netherlands on 29 July 1899.
On 18 May 1899, representatives of 26 nations, seven which were not European, had gathered at The Hague. Their objective: “[seek] the most effective means of ensuring to all peoples the benefits of a real and lasting peace.”
Russia had invited participants in January. Count Mikhail Nikolayevich Muravyov, minister of foreign affairs in the administration of Tsar Nicholas II, had three goals:
(1) a limitation on the expansion of armed forces and a reduction in the deployment of new armaments, (2) the application of the principles of the Geneva Convention of 1864 to naval warfare, and (3) a revision of the unratified Brussels Declaration of 1874 regarding the laws and customs of land warfare.
Although the conference attendees did not reach consensus on the agenda as proposed, they did agree to significant restrictions on how “belligerents” could use newly developed war technologies:
- they banned “projectiles” used to disperse asphyxiating poisonous gas (banned the method, not the weapon)
- they banned “bullets that expand or flatten easily in the human body“
On 29 July 1899, the delegations from 26 states, 19 of which were from Europe, concluded 72 days of discussion.
All 26 participants (major and minor) signed the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which still exists today: Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Bulgaria, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Siam, Spain, Sweden and Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The United Kingdom and the United States failed to sign the declaration on bullets; the United States alone failed to sign the declaration on poisonous gas.
It is notable that the Tsar of Russia initiated this peace effort and endorsed all declarations, given Russia’s current conduct in Ukraine.
In 1898, the Count sent a letter to the representatives of the nations that participated in the Declaration of St. Petersburg. He wrote that the Emperor was interested in “the maintenance of the general peace and a possible reduction of the excessive armaments which were burdening all nations.” The burden of war is costly.
In the circular, he noted that one purpose of the convention was “the revision of the declaration concerning the laws and customs of war elaborated in 1874 by the Conference of Brussels, and not yet ratified.”
Doctors Without Borders outlines the challenge delegates tackled:
Methods of warfare are the tactics or strategy used in hostilities against an enemy in times of conflict. Means of warfare are the weapons or weapons systems used. The only legitimate objective of war, as defined by the law of armed conflicts, is to weaken and overpower the opponent’s military forces. The history of conflicts illustrates the need to restrict the use of force in order to limit the risks of extermination and total destruction of the enemy [emphasis added].
Alexander Pearce Higgins, LL.D., lecturer on International Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, outlined the need for an international code of war in 1909:
During the past fifty years attempts have been made by means of international Conferences to arrive at a definite understanding with reference to various rules of international law, and more particularly those relating to war, for notwithstanding nearly twenty centuries of Christian teaching, war still remains the final arbiter of nations [emphasis added].
In the United States, The Nation poked a bit of fun at the delegates in language (tone and substance) that sounds far too contemporary. Note the Biblical imagery, like that from Higgins in London:
The Conference at The Hague opened a week ago in a curious atmosphere of aspiration tempered by insincerity and cynicism. Every individual delegate professes himself heartily in favor of peace, of checking the terrible cost of national armaments, of meeting halfway the efforts of the most powerful ruler on earth to stay the ravages of militarism. Then why cannot something be done? Well, this is a wicked world. You wouldn’t have the millennium come too suddenly, would you? But the delegates are good men in a wicked world. They may not be able to make the lion and the lamb lie down with sides actually touching, but is that any reason for their giving up trying to induce them to live peaceably in adjoining fields? If not absolutely perfect, why should we not try to make the world as good as possible? Ah, comes the hypocritical sigh, in which many of the delegates to the Conference furtively join, that is entirely impracticable! Individually, we all favor every plan for peace; but collectively, you know, the thing is impossible.
The Hague Peace Conference of 1899 would be followed by another in 1907, which had been delayed by the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). A third conference was canceled due to World War I, which began in 1914.
Prior international agreements on war included the Declaration of Paris of 1856; the Declaration of St. Petersburg of 1868; Geneva Conventions of 1864 and 1868.
On 24 April 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Lieber Code, based on the work of the German–American legal scholar and political philosopher Franz Lieber. The Lieber Code dictated how Union soldiers should conduct themselves; it covered martial law as well as the treatment of spies, deserters and prisoners of war. It shaped The Hague Convention of 1899.
- 04 September 1900: Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
- 06 October 1900: Japan
- 04 April 1901: Greece
- 17 April 1901: Mexico
- 11 May 1901: Serbia
- 12 July 1901: Luxembourg
- 09 April 1902: United States of America
- 12 June 1907: Turkey
- 05 July 1907: Norway, Sweden (previously United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway)
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