VUB rediscovers Belgian contribution to peace

In his doctoral research, VUB legal historian Wouter De Rycke investigated the unique but forgotten contribution of the Mons lawyer Louis Bara (1821-1857) to the 19th-century international peace campaign. According to De Rycke, his research offers a glimpse into a rather unknown episode of our history: “In the 19th century, the first internationally organised movement to declare war emerged, a kind of ‘NGO’ avant la lettre. Jurists such as Bara wanted to transform war from an ultima ratio regum and the associated right of conquest into a world order based on the rule of law.- At the beginning of October, the renowned Journal of the History of International Law published for the first time the full story of Bara, who was one of the first within this movement to chart a path to a ius contra bellum: a law that prohibits war, as laid down today in the United Nations charter.

In a project led by Frederik Dhondt and Raphaël Cahen within the research group Contextual Research in Law (CORE), De Rycke studied numerous 19th-century peace plans and placed them within the framework of their time, when international law still had to be transformed into its own branch of law. For this purpose, he went through the propaganda of the first pacifists, held in numerous libraries and archives throughout Europe and North America, as well as surviving manuscripts in Brussels and Mons. This revealed that Bara was an outsider in a number of important areas.

De Rycke: “The members of the international peace movement of the 19th century were very active. They filed petitions in parliaments, wrote to monarchs and presidents, and organised some major congresses, in cities such as Brussels, London and Paris. At the Paris Peace Congress of 1849, the writer Victor Hugo, amid loud applause, proclaimed the dream of a ‘United States of Europe’, which is still known today. What hardly anyone knows is that shortly afterwards Hugo gave a prize to Louis Bara, who had used exactly the same expression in his own text on the peace issue.’

Bara rejected almost all existing legal solutions of the then peace movement. He considered compulsory arbitration, international courts and an international parliament to be premature. The first step should be the legal refinement of international law by legal experts. These experts should evaluate all existing treaty and customary laws in a cooperative context, so that they could then make well-founded reform proposals to states and their diplomats. In this way, he antagonised the many strict Protestants who populated the peace organisations. Bara’s views were only adopted after his death by the next generations of ‘friends of peace’, who abandoned the earlier religious rhetoric and, like Bara, resolutely opted for the solution of peace through law.

This dynamic was reflected at the end of the 19th century in the establishment of the first specialised scientific institutions and journals. In the 20th century, peace-loving jurists pushed for the creation of the League of Nations and the United Nations, and for treaties that for the first time established a legal power against war as a legitimate conflict resolution mechanism.

De Rycke: “Bara was obscure and died young, and not lacking in delusions of grandeur, but many of his ideas became reality in the century after his death. Yet the project is still far from finished. The list of wars that the United Nations and the International Court of Justice have failed to prevent is long. This should not be a cause for despair, but a strong signal to continue centuries-old work. Few peace-lovers like Bara expected to experience world peace during their lifetime, but that was no obstacle for them. In Bara’s words, “Si mon siècle me repousse, j’espérerai en l’avenir!’’


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