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Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) – A True Pioneer in International Law

Portrait of the Dutch lawyer and statesman Hugo de Groot, also known as Hugo Grotius

As you travel through the Netherlands, you will most likely hear and see references to a man named Hugo Grotius.  He lived and wrote during the early 17th century, and today much of international law is based on the pioneering work that he did. Have you ever wondered how the oceans are ruled? Or how it is determined which country has rights over which part of the ocean? Have you ever wondered where the modern idea of a just war comes from? It comes from Hugo Grotius, a Dutch legal scholar and philosopher who you will hear a lot about during your stay in the Netherlands.

Natural Law

Hugo_de_GrootGrotius was always concerned with coming up with and arguing in favor of an idea of justice among nations. In other words, how could countries get along with one another? There had to be some way of determining right and wrong actions at an international level. One of Hugo Grotius’ main tenants was the idea of natural law. This is the idea that law comes from a higher power such as God or some absolute moral standard. This idea is found in Roman political writings, but Grotius was able to renew the idea of natural law and argue for it without appealing to the idea of God. Grotius thought that natural law included natural rights; that every person has certain rights that they are born with. Does this sound familiar? You’re right that the United States Constitution is also heavily influenced by the ideas of Grotius.


Hugo Grotius Statue in DelftAnother contribution Grotius is famous for is a book that he wrote when the Dutch East India Company asked him to write a book about freedom and the ocean. In this book, Grotius wrote “No prince can challenge further into the sea that he can command with a cannon except those within their land from one point to another”. This is why 3 miles, about as far as a cannon can shoot,  has become an international standard in defining territories in the oceans. Another thing Grotius is known for is his idea that is our right to defend ourselves and that it is our right to be compensated for injuries that were inflicted on us by an adversary. However, he is just as famous for the idea that all disputes should be resolved peacefully if possible. War is never a good thing. Grotius wrote about three ways to settle a dispute peacefully. The first is by negotiation the second, by compromise the third is by lottery or a single combat.

‘Just’ Wars?

Finally as you travel through the Netherlands you may notice that you hear Grotius spoken of with respect to the idea of a “just war”. This is the idea that the natural rights bestowed upon us sometimes require fighting for. This idea was not new to Grotius, but past thinkers had based the idea of a just war on God. Both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively on the idea. But Grotius argued that the criteria for a just war must not be based on religion because conflicts arise between peoples of different religions and countries. Since Faith is the cause of much conflict, there must be a separate way to talk about and identify a just war. Thus, secular ways of international relations was born.

Entrance to the tom of Hugo Grotius
Entrance to the tomb of Hugo Grotius

Hugo Grotius is one of those people not known by your average tourist, and yet he is critical to understanding the intellectual contributions of the Netherlands to International Law. Many of the procedures and policies practiced by the United Nations and other international organizations are heavily influenced by Grotius.

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