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

4 January 2018

In his new book, Michel Erpelding, Senior Research Fellow at MPI Luxembourg, explores the origins of international antislavery norms before the international human rights law emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The prohibition of slavery is a fundamental norm in contemporary international law. It is an integral part of all major human rights instruments, and it is generally presented as an obligation towards the international community as a whole.

Prior to the Second World War and the emergence of international human rights, the international antislavery law was tightly linked to the ambiguous idea of “civilisation” and, more precisely, to the ability of the Western States to define themselves as “civilised nations” as compared to the rest of the world. As a matter of fact, the very notion of “civilised nations” appeared for the first time in the history of international law in the Declaration of the Eight Courts Relative to the Universal Abolition of the Slave Trade of 8 February 1815. Signed at the Congress of Vienna, the Declaration was also the first multilateral instrument that condemned the slave trade.

As shown through the book’s systematic survey of relevant State practice (which includes hundreds of treaties and pieces of domestic and/or colonial legislation), the antislavery principle proclaimed in 1815 soon gave rise to more stringent and detailed norms. However, its precise scope remained under constant debate. One major question that arose during these debates was whether a “civilised nation” which had formally abolished the institution of slavery but tolerated or used certain forms of forced labour could be accused of having infringed its obligations under international antislavery law. Only in 1945 would the adoption of the Nuremberg Charter bring a positive answer to that question.

Le droit international antiesclavagiste des « nations civilisées » (1815-1945)
Institut Universitaire Varenne (distributed by LGDJ)
XIII-927 pages
ISBN: 978-2-37032-140-4
Order the book