A Century of Arbitration: The International Court of Justice

By Nash, Michael L. | Contemporary Review, May 1999 | Go to article overview

A Century of Arbitration: The International Court of Justice


Nash, Michael L., Contemporary Review


The International Court of Justice in the Hague had an extraordinary and unlikely beginning. Few can realise, even now, that it was the brainchild of Tsar Nicholas II, the murdered Tsar of Ekaterinburg, the weak and vacillating Tsar of the First World War; the same whose remains were re-interred last July, the eightieth anniversary of his atrocious death.

In 1898, when Nicholas had been Tsar for just four years, he called for an international conference to discuss disarmament. His motives for doing this were questioned at the time and have been questioned since. Was he concerned more with the ability of his own country to stand the financial strain of the arms race? This is the cynical view. Another reason was the publication that year of a six-volume work by Ivan Bliokh, an important Jewish railway financier, who depicted in a massive array of facts, statistics and projected casualty rates the grim horror of any future war. Bliokh had an audience with Nicholas and helped persuade him to issue his proposal in August 1898. Undoubtedly the Tsar was worried. Austria was re-equipping her artillery with modern field guns, which Russia was unable to match, but there were other reasons. The message to all the governments of the world lamented the economic, financial and moral effects of the arms race, and the less jaundiced of Nicholas's hearers thought he might go down in history as 'Nicholas the Pacific'.

His cousin (by marriage) Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was, predictably, hostile to the idea of the Peace Conference and the whole notion of disarmament. 'Imagine', he telegraphed the Tsar, 'A Monarch . . . dissolving his regiments sacred with a hundred years of history and handing over his town to Anarchists and Democracy!'

Less predictable, perhaps, was the response from another relation, the future Edward VII of Britain, still then Prince of Wales. He in time would be known as 'Edward the Peace-maker'. Yet he commented: 'As regards the Tsar's idea of disarmament throughout all nations, it is the greatest rubbish and nonsense I ever heard of. The thing is simply impossible!' (September 1899). Edward regarded his nephew as 'weak as water', and never altered his opinion, but to give the young and inexperienced Tsar his due, he persisted with his plans, and the Conference was convened at the Hague in May 1899.

Why was it convened at the Hague? Part of the reason at least must have been that Nicholas was also the cousin of the Queen of the Netherlands, Wilhelmina, who had just attained her majority and begun to reign alone. She was nineteen; Nicholas was thirty. Perhaps they both held hopes for a future without war and without arms.

Twenty European powers attended, along with the United States, Mexico, Japan, China, Siam (Thailand) and Persia (Iran). The Russian proposals for freezing armament levels was defeated, but the Convention did agree on rules of warfare, and established a Permanent Court of Arbitration. Such a court had never existed before, although the idea of arbitration was almost as old as history. Historians could quote the Scots putting their succession problems to the arbitration of Edward I in 1296; to the Spanish and Portuguese submitting to papal arbitration over claims in the New World in 1494 (the Treaty of Tordesillas); and more recently to the Alabama case between Britain and the United States, in 1871 and the Anglo-American Arbitration Treaty of 1897, although this last was subject to stringent British reservations and failed to obtain the approval of the United States Senate. Interestingly, a dispute between Argentina and Chile over the Beagle Channel had been submitted for arbitration firstly to Queen Victoria in 1896, who accepted the office of arbitrator, and then to Edward VII himself, who made an award in 1902. (This dispute was further referred to Queen Elizabeth II sixty years later, and her award was published by HMSO on December 9, 1966). So arbitration in an international sense was certainly not unknown, whether personal or through states. …

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