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Early International & Humanitarian Law

A Digital Exhibit

Hugo Grotius Image 5
Part of an illustration from The Most Excellent Hugo Grotius, His Three Books Treating of the Rights of War & Peace.

The Origins of Modern Humanitarian Law in Early Treatises on the Law of Nations


Humanitarian law is one of the oldest branches of international law. Rules concerning the conduct of warfare, particularly regarding persons incapable of defending themselves such as non-combatants and prisoners of war, are nearly as old as warfare itself. For most of human history, however, these rules were neither codified nor agreed upon internationally.

The Renaissance was a time when ideas concerning the law of nations and humanitarian law began to flourish in Europe. Jurists such as Belli, Gentili, and Grotius undertook systematic treatments of the law of war and the law of nations in general. These areas of study were not new, but what was new was an approach based on legal rather than scriptural principles.

Much of what is considered modern humanitarian law, beginning with the Geneva Convention of 1864, has its roots in early treatises on the law of nations dating from the fourteenth through early nineteenth centuries. These works have influenced our ideas on the law of war, neutrality, just causes of war, and the protection of civilians and noncombatants. The works are also clearly products of the political situations of their times, and our concept of humanitarian law has since evolved and expanded. For example, Grotius and others use some of the theories of natural law to justify the slaughter and enslavement of indigenous peoples in the New World, which no scholar of international law today would condone.

The books in this virtual exhibit represent a selective sampling of the most important works of this era. The majority of the works in the exhibit are in their original languages; additionally, the Law Library owns English translations of most of them. It is hoped that this exhibit will encourage international legal scholars, students, and enthusiasts to explore the collections in the Riesenfeld Rare Books Research Center and the University of Minnesota Law Library more fully.

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