Prinsegracht 8, 2512 GA, The Hague
Two heritage houses at Prinsegracht recall the works of the Russian lawyer Feodor Martens: at no. 8 we learn about the principle, associated with his name, of the protection of war victims; at no. 71 he acted as an international arbitrator.
“… the principles of the law of nations, as they result from the usages established among civilized peoples, from the laws of humanity, and the dictates of the public conscience”
– Feodor Martens
The Hague peace tradition started with informal Dutch-Russian legal cooperation, as historian Arthur Eyffinger observes: “Diplomats, military men and pacifists, even cartoonists readily agreed that Tobias Asser and Feodor Martens were the soul and backbone of the 1899 Conference.”
Feodor Feodorovicz Martens (1845-1909) was the legal advisor of Tsar Nicholas II who proposed in 1898 The Hague as the venue of the First Peace Conference. He was also a realist who foresaw the failure of the Tsar’s disarmament initiative. For that reason, he added legal issues to the agenda that had a chance of success: humanitarian law of war and international arbitration.
During the Conference of 1899, Martens led the preparations of the Convention on Land Warfare. When the talks seemed to end in a deadlock over definitions, he reached consensus over the principle that in all cases of armed conflict, “the inhabitants and the belligerents remain under the protection and the rule of the principles of the law of nations, as they result from the usages established among civilized peoples, from the laws of humanity, and the dictates of the public conscience.” (Hague Convention IV, 1899, 1907).
This ‘Martens clause’ has become a key element in the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as expressed in the name of the Humanity House on Prinsegracht 8. This peace museum evokes empathy with the victims of war and catastrophe who are in need of protection. Thus also school children learn to understand basic principles of international law.
The modest building on Prinsegracht 71 is the visible result of the Convention on Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes, the first seat of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Together with Asser, Martens served as an arbitrator in 1902, in a minor dispute between the United States and Mexico over church properties. This case put the system of The Hague in motion and inspired trust in the procedures of international jurisdiction.
The importance of such procedures and of the Martens clause itself is shown in the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice of 1996 on the illegality of nuclear weapons. In this case, the Court accepted the mass protests of the peace movement as proof of ‘the dictates of the public conscience’.