(image source: Tilburg University)
I presented a paper at the Journal of the History of International Law-symposium organised by Jan Lemnitzer (Southern Denmark) and Randall Lesaffer (Tilburg/KUL) on "The Parisian Peace Treaties (1919-1920) and the Emergence of Modern International Law", on 17 May 2018.
The violation of Belgian’s sovereignty by the German army in August 1914 and the atrocities committed in the ensuing first phase of the Great War constitute a watershed in the country’s domestic history and international position. Article VII of the Treaty of London (19 April 1839, 88 CTS 421) had installed a system of perpetual neutrality, guaranteed by five great powers. The nature of this system was hotly debated among international legal scholars. In the slipstream of the “Gentle Civilizer of Nations”, Belgian pre-World War I doctrine had become patriotic and excessively affirmative of the auxiliary and secondary nature of the international status imposed on the country. During the Great War, King Albert I and the Belgian government in Sainte-Adresse considered the country as the innocent neutral victim of German aggression. In a strict reading of the 1907 Hague Conventions, the Belgian authorities claimed a neutral power did not lose its status as a belligerent and could thus remain aloof of the warring sides.The Versailles Peace Treaty (art. 31) abolished the neutrality status. Belgium actively participated in the League of Nations, contributing to the Permanent Court of International Justice’s statute or presiding of the General Assembly. Yet, the Versailles Peace Conference had been a relative failure. Belgium claimed territorial compensation for its invasion and occupation. If article VII of the Treaty of London had been abolished, the compromise underlying this agreement ought to be revised equally.More information here.
Belgian claims were directed at the Netherlands. The voluntary neutral Northern neighbour had cut off access to the Port of Antwerp,  the réduit national, built by successive governments and designed for the national army’s structural resistance to invasion. Moreover, Flemish separatists had disseminated propaganda from the Netherlands with the Hun’s help.I propose to examine the Treaty of Versailles’ impact on Belgium’s international status. The Belgian Foreign Archives contain voluminous records of letters and memoranda in its thematic Classement B, section Indépendance-Neutralité-Défense Nationale. First, inevitably, those exchanged between Brussels and The Hague on the impact of the end of the World War on both the bilateral contentieux and the multilateral legal framework. Understandably, Dutch arguments tend to outright discard events between 1914 and 1918. Second, more interestingly, a record of possible scenarios envisaged during the First World War, whereby Belgium’s compensations could be found as well to the detriment of the German aggressor as to that of the controversially neutral Netherlands, or to the equally innocent Grand-Duchy of Luxemburg.
The combination of these records with the papers left by Louis Arendt (1843-1924), director of political affairs before World War I shed light on the intellectual argumentative perimeter within which the concept of Belgian neutrality ought to be interpreted. The violation of Belgian neutrality was envisaged as inevitable by the national authorities, who prepared emergency legislation, a physical move of all branches of government and the applicability of the law of occupation well ahead of August 1914.
If permanent neutrality were to be lost in a conflict among the guarantors, this would constitute a genuine advantage in the first place, and a recognition of the country’s equal status in international relations, freed from the yoke of its mothers-in-law. The burden imposed in 1839 was likened to the loss of territories historically pertaining to the Southern Netherlands, a result of unhappy circumstances in August 1831. Arguments against the perceived selfish Dutch attitude in 1914 pertained to classical law of nations controversies.
Preparing for the war, Arendt drafted syntheses of contemporary and “old” doctrine, eventually leading to a handwritten and yet unpublished treatise on international law, kept at the Belgian State Archives. Ten years later, successors seem equally untouched by the institutional revolution caused by the League of Nations. Finally, when Belgium assumed a course of voluntary neutrality, often incorrectly labelled a “return to neutrality”, the state exercised nothing more or less than the most traditional prerogative of sovereign nations: the discretionary power to take part or abstain in an armed conflict between two external actors.
 Isabel V Hull, A Scrap of Paper. Breaking and Making International Law during the Great War (Cornell UP 2014). Sophie De Schaepdrijver, La Belgique et La Première Guerre Mondiale (PIE - Peter Lang 2004); Henri Pirenne, La Belgique et la guerre mondiale (Les Presses universitaires de France 1929). Vincent Genin, ‘Un “Laboratoire Belge” Du Droit International (1869-1940)? Réseaux Internationaux, Expériences et Mémoires de Guerre Des Juristes Belges’ (Université de Liège 2017); Martti Koskenniemi, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law 1870-1960 (Cambridge University Press 2001). Frederik Dhondt, ‘Neutralité Irresponsable ? Les Glissements de La Doctrine Belge Au Dix-Neuvième Siècle’ (forthcoming); Ernest Nys, L’état Indépendant Du Congo et Le Droit International (Hayez 1903); Edouard Eugène François Descamps, Le Droit de La Paix et de La Guerre : Essai Sur l’évolution de La Neutralité et Sur La Constitution Du Pacigérat (A Rousseau 1898). Jan Velaers, Albert I (Lannoo 2007).
 Vincent Genin, ‘Le Cas Des Experts Belges à La Cour Permanente de Justice Internationale, 1921-1930’ 18 Les Cahiers Sirice 61. Paul-F Smets, Pierre Mertens and Pierre Goldschmidt, Paul Hymans 1865-1941 : Un Authentique Homme d’État (Editions Racine 2015). Maria De Waele, Naar Een Groter België! De Belgische Territoriale Eisen Tijdens En Na de Eerste Wereldoorlog. Een Onderzoek Naar de Doeleinden, Besluitvorming, de Realisatiemiddelen En de Propagandavorming van de Buitenlandse Politiek (Universiteit Gent 1989). Wim Klinkert, Samuël Kruizinga and Paul Moeyes, Nederland neutraal. De Eerste Wereldoorlog, 1914-1918 (Boom 2014). Revue Générale de Droit International Public 1919, Chronique, 164.
 Belgian State Archives Brussels, Private Archives, Louis Arendt Papers, vol. 3.
 Lode Wils, ‘Gerretson, Geyl En Vos. Spanningen Tussen de Groot-Nederlandse Beweging En de Vlaams-Nationalistische’  Wetenschappelijke Tijdingen 95. Lassa Oppenheim, ‘Le Caractère Essentiel de La Société Des Nations’ 26 Revue Générale de Droit International Public 234; Robert Kolb, Markus G Schmidt and Djacoba Andry Solofonirina Oliva Tehindrazanarivelo (eds), Commentaire Sur Le Pacte de La Société Des Nations (Bruylant 2014). Eric Schnakenbourg, Entre la guerre et la paix. Neutralité et relations internationales, XVIIe-XVIIIe siècle (PURennes 2013).