Second Hague Peace Conference

The Second Hague Peace Conference of 1907 revised and expanded the rules developed during an 1899 conference to mitigate suffering and protect the rights of persons involved in international war.

Summary of Event

In the second half of the nineteenth century, advances in weapons technology were rapidly making nations’ use of force more destructive. As a result, there was a growing need to limit what states were allowed to do in the course of armed conflict. The laws and customs of war needed to be revised and expanded, and a number of international agreements began to do that. For example, the 1864 Geneva Convention sought to improve the condition of wounded soldiers in the field, and the 1874 Brussels Declaration attempted to codify the norms of land warfare. Second Hague Peace Conference
Diplomacy;peace conferences
Peace conferences;Second Hague Peace Conference
Law of war
[kw]Second Hague Peace Conference (Oct. 18, 1907)
[kw]Hague Peace Conference, Second (Oct. 18, 1907)
[kw]Peace Conference, Second Hague (Oct. 18, 1907)
[kw]Conference, Second Hague Peace (Oct. 18, 1907)
Second Hague Peace Conference
Diplomacy;peace conferences
Peace conferences;Second Hague Peace Conference
Law of war
[g]Netherlands;Oct. 18, 1907: Second Hague Peace Conference[01970]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct. 18, 1907: Second Hague Peace Conference[01970]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Oct. 18, 1907: Second Hague Peace Conference[01970]
Roosevelt, Theodore
[p]Roosevelt, Theodore;Second Hague Peace Conference
Nicholas II
[p]Nicholas II[Nicholas 02];Second Hague Peace Conference

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the expansionist drive of the Great Powers made the outbreak of war increasingly likely, and codifying the standards of civilized warfare became more urgent. The initiative came from Czar Nicholas II, who invited all nations maintaining diplomatic relations with the Russian government to meet for the purpose of seeking the most effective means of preserving peace, limiting armaments, and regulating the conduct of war. The Hague was selected as the site for this conference, and, at Russia’s request, the Dutch monarch issued the invitations. Twenty-six governments participated in the First Hague Peace Conference First Hague Peace Conference
Peace conferences;First Hague Peace Conference from May 18 to July 29, 1899.

That first conference failed to provide new approaches to peace, and it failed to limit armaments. It did produce, however, among other things, new rules of international law to protect both combatants and noncombatants from the effects of war; it also provided the foundation for the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907. The second conference, in fact, had been expected to meet sooner. The participants in the 1899 negotiations saw the effort as useful, and the diplomats involved supported reconvening within a relatively short span of time. More urgent problems intervened, however, as Russia found itself at war with Japan, and plans for the next conference were set aside. The Interparliamentary Union Interparliamentary Union (an organization of representatives of parliaments of sovereign states working for international cooperation) decided in 1904 to urge U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt to convene the Second Hague Peace Conference. He accepted and immediately sounded out the governments represented at the first conference. All responded positively. The termination of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, however, led the czar to resume the initiative. It was on his invitation that Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands convoked the Second Hague Peace Conference.

This time, forty-four nations participated in the proceedings, from June 15 to October 18, 1907. Once again, the participants failed to devise effective ways of preserving peace or controlling armaments. They did, however, draft an unprecedented number of agreements aimed at setting limits to the conduct of hostilities, safeguarding human rights, and reducing the brutality and destructiveness of war. The most important of these was Convention IV, a revision and expansion of one of the conventions written in 1899. It provided the most comprehensive set of rules to that date for military operations on land. The regulations, as they were called in the convention, were of considerable significance for the protection of human rights.

On a personal level, many of the rules promised to protect individuals in a variety of ways. The regulations stated that prisoners of war must be humanely treated. Specific rules established, often in very detailed manner, the extent of their protection, such as the kind of work they could be ordered to do and their compensation for it. The sick and wounded must be treated according to the Geneva Convention, Geneva Convention revised in 1906. Some of the means and methods of combat were also regulated. For example, the use of poisoned weapons was forbidden, as was the killing of soldiers who had laid down their weapons. A belligerent occupying enemy territory was allowed to exercise its authority, but with a number of restrictions. For example, the occupant must respect the rights of the people living there, their private property, and their religious practices. Pillage was forbidden. The states that were party to this convention agreed that they would issue instructions to their armed forces ensuring compliance with these regulations.

Other conventions specified that hostilities between states must not begin without prior and explicit warning. They prohibited the use of armed force for the purpose of recovering contract debts owed by a government unless the debtor state refused or failed to reply to an offer of arbitration or failed to comply with the result of the arbitral proceedings. This was a small step in the attempt to restrict the sovereign right of states to use armed force, a goal that eventually was achieved on a much larger scale by the League of Nations, the 1928 Pact of Paris (the Kellogg-Briand Pact), and the United Nations.

Another 1907 Hague convention specified the rights and duties of neutral states, essentially protecting them from the destruction of war in return for their concerted efforts not to be of assistance to any of the belligerents. Some of the rules protected specific human rights. If, for example, some of the armed forces of a belligerent entered the territory of a neutral power, the latter was obligated to intern them for the duration of the war and provide the food, clothing, and relief required by humanity. After the war, the neutral power would be entitled to compensation for the internment expenses incurred.

The last eight conventions written at The Hague in 1907 regulated naval warfare. They included provisions ensuring the security of maritime trade against the sudden outbreak of war and, to this end, protected against seizure of merchant vessels belonging to one of the belligerents found in an enemy port at the beginning of a war. Other provisions distinguished merchant ships converted into warships, protected the freedom of sea-lanes in times of war, and ensured the safety of vessels not involved in a conflict by forbidding the laying of unanchored contact mines, which are indiscriminate.

The Hague regulations developed for land warfare were made applicable to naval bombardment. This was meant to protect the populations of undefended ports, towns, or villages and to preserve buildings used for artistic, scientific, or charitable purposes and otherwise reduce the destructiveness and harshness of war.

Some of the provisions developed in 1899 were meant to adapt to maritime warfare the principles of the Geneva Convention for the protection of sick and wounded personnel. These were revised and expanded in 1907, specifying the conditions under which hospital ships and medical personnel could carry out their humanitarian mission. The conventions further elaborated the rules of capture in naval warfare, exempting from capture postal cargoes and vessels used exclusively for fishing along the coast as well as those employed in local trade or engaged in religious, scientific, or philanthropic activities. The conventions set up the International Prize Court International Prize Court to ensure greater justice in the capture of merchant ships and their cargo.

Finally, rules were made to protect the rights of neutral powers in naval war. For example, the kinds of activities belligerent ships could engage in while in neutral ports were specified, as was the length of time belligerent ships could stay in neutral ports.

The rules and regulations written in 1907 were significant, but the nations represented at The Hague were aware that further development was needed. The Second Hague Peace Conference failed to create institutions to preserve international peace and reduce armaments. The delegates were convinced, however, that their efforts had been useful and that this work should continue. They agreed, therefore, that a third peace conference should be held in about eight years. The lack of urgency they showed is astounding in the light of the growing international tensions and increasing risk of war during the period. By 1915, the scheduled date of the third conference, World War I was under way. The third conference never took place.


The 1907 conference substantially clarified and expanded the law of war. The participants showed a concern for curbing the brutality of armed conflict and reducing the suffering of both combatants and noncombatants. Although rapid technological developments soon thereafter made war infinitely more devastating, and human suffering reached unprecedented heights, the humanitarian rules of behavior formulated at The Hague nevertheless saved millions of human beings from inhumane treatment. The conventions concerning legal norms of behavior, although far from evenly or generally applied, were sufficiently respected that large numbers of prisoners were taken and cared for. The wounded were attended to, medical facilities were, more often than not, given some protection, and some restraint was shown in the conduct of military operations.

Undeniably, what was needed was a better way of preserving international peace, but human rights would have been infinitely more imperiled without the rules developed at The Hague. It must be remembered that the conference took a small step toward limiting the sovereign right of states to go to war, prohibiting states from doing so for the collection of international debts under some conditions. The League of Nations, the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, and the United Nations would later go much further. A new philosophy on the lawful use of force was emerging.

Humanitarian agencies, particularly the International Red Cross, have played an important role in encouraging the application of legal norms of behavior in war. By conducting relentless visits and inspections (on battlefields, in military hospitals, and in prisoner-of-war camps), their representatives have been able to document violations and to apply pressure for better observance of the laws. Such agencies’ exposure of violations has occasionally led to public outcries and sanctions (for example, the war crimes trials following World War II). Contrary to what some people believe, most armies and most governments are not eager to violate the international law of war. Every war involves leaders, commanders in the field, and lesser combatants who refuse to surrender to inhumanity. The norms of behavior during war defined by international conferences such as the Second Hague Peace Conference give them instruments to justify their restraint.

The rules that came out of the 1907 conference were tied to a particular period of history and its values and priorities. War rapidly changed after that period, and technology created drastically new problems in the conduct of warfare. International society changed just as much, requiring the law to be revised periodically, particularly under the sponsorship of the International Red Cross and the United Nations. A number of the rules written in 1907, however, remain a part of today’s law of war. Even though the texts that emerged from the 1899 and 1907 conferences never formally entered into force as treaties, they strengthened and helped develop the growing emergence of customary norms of law.

The 1907 conference showed that large-scale codification is feasible. It demonstrated a widely shared conviction that, difficult as the task may be, nations can develop legal restraints on their behavior during war. It was important that the conference participants affirm or reaffirm standards of humane conduct. This did not solve the problem of war, but it demonstrated the value placed on protecting basic human rights, even (or perhaps especially) in wartime. Second Hague Peace Conference
Diplomacy;peace conferences
Peace conferences;Second Hague Peace Conference
Law of war

Further Reading

  • Best, Geoffrey. Humanity in Warfare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. Reviews the history of the principles and rules of war and the influence of specific periods on their evolution. Serious and thoughtful; attempts to approach this difficult subject with objectivity. Very helpful in clarifying the role of restraints in war. Provides a useful chronological guide to the formulation of the law of war and a substantial bibliography.
  • Detter, Ingrid. The Law of War. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Succinct presentation of the law of war, including its special characteristics and the place of the Hague rules in the modern system. Provides a clear overview of the norms of this body of law and explains their evolution and application. Includes an extensive bibliography.
  • McKercher, B. J. C., ed. Arms Limitation and Disarmament: Restraints on War, 1899-1939. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1992. Examines the history of efforts to limit warfare. Includes a chapter on the Second Hague Peace Conference.
  • Oppenheim, L. International Law. 7th ed. Vol. 2 in Disputes, War, and Neutrality, edited by H. Lauterpacht. London: Longmans, Green, 1948-1952. Presents the Hague law in the context of the evolution of the law of war. Discusses the application of specific rules developed at The Hague and their subsequent revision and expansion. Provides a useful and sufficiently compact review of the war crimes trials.
  • Rosenblad, Esbjörn. International Humanitarian Law of Armed Conflict. Geneva: Henry Dunant Institute, 1979. An excellent statement of the practical need for a continuing development of humanitarian law applicable in wartime. Reviews the contemporary problems involved and the various efforts to overcome them. Provides a useful context for the study of the Hague rules. Includes an extensive bibliography.
  • Scott, James Brown. The Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1909. The most basic work on the Hague conferences. Volume 1 gives an excellent account of the two conferences and an extensive discussion of the conventions negotiated there. Volume 2 provides the full text of all documents as well as diplomatic materials concerning the two conferences. Extremely useful.
  • Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical illustrations. 3d ed. New York: Basic Books, 2000. A remarkably interesting and insightful study of restraints in war, both moral and legal, demonstrating their relevance and applications even in the bitter armed conflicts of recent history. Also discusses the limitations of restraints. Includes many historical examples and case studies.

League of Nations Is Established

Permanent Court of International Justice Is Established

Geneva Protocol Is Signed