Marcel Brus, Professor of Public International Law
400 years ago the University of Groningen was founded. Celebrating its 400th anniversary, the Department of International Law inaugurates its own blog in which we intend to critically follow developments in international law. However, there is no future without a past. So what happened in these 400 or so years?
The Law Faculty is claimed to be even older than 1614 as already in 1596 the authorities of ‘Stad and Ommeland’ (the city and the surrounding area) decided to establish an institution for higher education to which they appointed one professor who was to teach law. Professor Mello Theodorus Brunsema delivered his inaugural address on 6 July 1596 entitled
Oratio pro nova
juridicae facultatis Groningae Instituta praelectione
Initially, he was appointed for one year, but he stayed until 1601. There is evidence that there was at least one student attending in the first year. The ius commune of that time was the Roman law and a core issue at that time was how to distinguish between the human and the divine aspects of law. Brunsema had to use all his efforts to create space for lawyers for dealing with human issues of law and justice and to separate this from the domain of theology. This was a theme which will also be clearly visible in the works of one of the heroes of international law, Hugo de Groot, or Grotius. What happened to our early law faculty between 1601 and 1614 is unknown; probably it led a dormant existence until the University was established in 1614 (J Lokin, ‘De oprichting van de eenmansfac ulteit te Groningen in 1596’ (2012) XXIX Groninger Opmerkingen en Mededelingen 57).
The ius gentium or the law of nations was taught from the beginning at our new university. It is at least possible to retrace the origins of teaching international law back to Professor Jacobus Oiselius who was appointed in 1667 to a chair that included the ius gentium. One should keep in mind that in those formative days only one or two professors taught law. Only in 1815 a third law professor was appointed, and in 1876 it was expanded to 6. They had to cover the entire field of law and therefore depending on their own interests they devoted more or less attention to international law. What is clear though is that many of them used the works of Grotius as the basis of the teaching well into the 19th century.
Professor Jean Barbeyrac, who was born in France, studied in Lausanne, Geneva, Frankfurt an der Oder and Bazel, and worked at Groningen University from 1717 to 1744, stands out as one of the early Groningen experts in international law. A first major publication was his translation and commentary on Pufendorf’s De iure naturae et gentium that was published in 1706 under the title Le droit de la nature & de gens. In Groningen he worked on a critical publication of Grotius’ De iure belli ac pacis that was published in 1720. Probably based on his personal experiences in France, where he, as Huguenot, was confronted with persecution and Berlin where he also experienced religious intolerance, much of the work of Barbeyrac can be regarded as a plea for natural law in which human freedom is protected against arbitrariness and repression. He resisted worldly or religious tyranny against freedom of conscience. In his inaugural address he joined the anticlerical tradition and opposed the role of the church in law. He had a significant influence on the debate on religious intolerance in the Netherlands in the 18th century. Can he perhaps be claimed as our first human rights professor?
What we certainly cannot claim is that religious intolerance was alien to Groningen. In 1773 Professor van der Marck, who held the chair in among others public law, natural law and the law of nations since 1758, was expelled from the university after accusations of taking positions in his lectures, which were seen as contrary to the teachings of the then prevailing protestant church. In vain, he vigorously defended his freedom to teach against the objections of the clergy and of members of the faculty of theology. In 1795 he was reappointed to the chair.
Although it would be tempting to discuss the work and influence of each of the more than 20 professors who were responsible for the teaching and research in international law at Groningen University since its establishment in 1614 and until a chair was exclusively designated to international law in 1964, this cannot be done in this first blog, but we may discuss every year one or two of them more extensively. For now, I will limit myself to mainly one professor who can be seen as, in a sense, the founding father of the current International Law Department.
From 1821-1833 the chair that included the law of nations was held by Professor G. van der Wal. He prepared a textbook that was published in 1835 by his successor Professor C. Star Numan under the title Introduction to the Science of the European Law of Nations (Inleiding tot de wetenschap van het Europesche volkenregt: een nagelaten werk). Interestingly one of the publications by his successor in the 20th century, Professor B.V.A. Röling, also refers to the concept of the European law of nations: European Law of Nations or Universal Law of Nations? (Europees volkenrecht of wereld-volkenrecht?, 1958). It would be an interesting exercise to compare these two notions of the European law of nations and the views of the authors on the role and place of international law in their world. In the 1950s Röling became convinced that it was time to change international law into a law that is truly international and that not only reflects the Christian European world view and interests, but would also include the views and interests of all countries and peoples, including those that were still fighting for independence. This proposition is further elaborated in his International Law in an Expanded World (1960). He among others strongly resisted the Dutch colonial practice which led to a conflict with the Dutch government, causing his removal from the Dutch UN delegation and a blockade to taking up a chair at Leiden University. Also in Groningen his critical position was not always appreciated, but at least his fate did not follow van der Marck’s.
Röling started his career in criminal law and criminology, but his appointment as the Dutch judge at the Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo (where he wrote an influential dissenting opinion) confronted him with the role of law in international law and relations. After his return from Tokyo he was appointed at the Groningen University in 1948 to the chair of criminal law and criminal procedure. In 1950, upon the retirement of Professor van der Pot, he was also appointed as professor in international law. His inaugural address in 1950 combines the fields of international law and criminal law: Criminality of Aggressive War (Strafbaarheid van de Agressieve Oorlog). During his long career at Groningen University, Röling focused strongly on peace and justice. His work as an international lawyer became very much interwoven with his interest in the new discipline of peace research, or rather polemology, the study of war and peace, for which he created a separate institute at the University. His passion for peace is also reflected in his teaching, where his book International Law and Peace (Volkenrecht en Vrede) was compulsory reading for his students. The justice dimension is clearly visible in his interest and work on the law of a new international social and economic order which is very much linked to his ideas on promoting positive peace and the inclusiveness of international law as world law mentioned above. The legacy of Röling still is very much alive at Groningen University, as his former student and successor, Professor Verwey, only retired recently, and various other members of the current staff of the Faculty of Law and the Department of International Relations have either followed his lectures (as I have done) or worked with him. A further discussion of his legacy will be an appropriate topic to take up in one of the next blogs.
Verwey once described Röling as an unorthodox professional and a pioneer with great vision and vocation. Looking back at the rich history of international law at the Groningen University, it is clear that he followed the critical mindset of his predecessors. I would like to congratulate the initiators of this blog and wish them success and hope that the views expressed on these pages will reflect the continuation of a forward-looking and critical tradition at our University: for infinity!
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