Research Fellow Michel Erpelding awarded with Doctoral degree

28 March 2017

Michel Erpelding received the Doctoral degree from Sorbonne Law School - University Paris 1 with highest honours.


On 22 March 2017 Michel Erpelding successfully defended his thesis entitled “The International Anti-Slavery Law of ‘Civilized Nations’ (1815 – 1945)” before a committee consisting of his thesis supervisor Prof. Emmanuelle Tourme-Jouannet (Sciences Po Paris), Prof. Denis Alland (University Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas), Prof. Evelyne Lagrange (University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne), Prof. Anne Peters (Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law), and Prof. Hélène Ruiz Fabri (Max Planck Institute Luxembourg for Procedural Law).

In his thesis, Michel Erpelding focuses on the prohibition of slavery as one of the most important rules of present-day international law and specifically on the origins of this prohibition, as reflected in state practice and discussed by doctrine, before the emergence of an international human rights law following the Second World War.

Prior to this war, the definition and the conceptual framework of slavery were closely connected to the ability of Western states to define themselves as “civilized nations”. The notion of “civilisation” first appeared in positive international law in the 1815 Vienna Declaration on the Universal Abolition of the Slave Trade and, therefore, coincides with the first multilateral antislavery instrument. Although the abolishment of slavery had been translated into more detailed legislative standards following this declaration, the exact scope remained under constant challenge. For instance, the persistence of de facto slavery in colonial Africa was mostly denied in order to maintain the credibility of the “civilising mission”. Conversely, state-imposed colonial forced labour was described as required by “civilisation”. Dr Erpelding’s research shows that one recurring question was whether a “civilized nation” which had formally abolished the slave institution could be accused of having committed an unlawful act under international law for tolerating certain forms of forced labour which were not based on the formal recognition of a right of ownership of human beings. It was only in 1945 that the signatories of the Nuremberg Statute expressly recognized that this could indeed be the case.