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Le droit international antiesclavagiste des "nations civilisées" (1815-1945)


Erpelding,  Michel
Department II, Max Planck Institute Luxembourg, Max Planck Society;

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Erpelding, M. (2017). Le droit international antiesclavagiste des "nations civilisées" (1815-1945). Paris: Institut Universitaire Varenne.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-002E-6293-2
The international anti-slavery law of ‘civilized nations’ (1815-1945) The prohibition of slavery is a fundamental rule of contemporary international law. It has been incorporated into all major international human rights conventions. The International Court of Justice cited it as an international obligation in whose protection all states have a legal interest. Most international law scholars refer to it as the very example of a peremptory norm. The present study examines the origins of the international prohibition of slavery, as reflected by state practice and scholarly writings. It focusses on the period prior to the emergence of international human rights law in the aftermath of the Second World War. Its main argument is that during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the emergence of international anti-slavery law and the definition of its conceptual framework was closely dependent on the capacity of Western states to define themselves, when compared to the rest of the world, as ‘civilized nations.' As a matter of fact, the notion of ‘civilized nations’, which has been devoid of any normative content in positive international law since 1945, appeared for the first time in the ‘Declaration on the abolition of the trade in negroes’ adopted during the Congress of Vienna on 8 February 1815. The Vienna Declaration was also the first instrument in which all major European powers recognized that they were, as a matter of principle, under the obligation to end certain slavery-related practices – in this case, the deportation of African captives as slaves. The anti-slavery principle adopted at Vienna in 1815 was gradually fleshed out by more detailed treaty obligations and internal legislation. The fact that all Western states eventually purged their respective domestic legal orders from the institution of slavery further increased its importance. However, its precise scope, as well as the modalities of its implementation, were always subject to controversy and uncertainty during the examined period. My research shows that a recurring question during that period was whether a ‘civilized nation’ which had formally abolished slavery could still be accused of breaching international anti-slavery law by tolerating or exacting certain forms of forced labour not based on the recognition of property rights over human beings. It is only in 1945, after a period during which the very notion of ‘civilization’ had largely fallen into disrepute, that the signatories of the Nuremberg Charter adopted the first treaty positively recognizing that this could indeed be the case.