Latin Lieber: Uncovering the History of the Treaty on the Regularisation of War

Latin Lieber: Uncovering the History of the Treaty on the Regularisation of War

Any student of international humanitarian law knows the story:

“In 1861 Francis Lieber (1800-1872), a German-American professor of political science and law at Columbia University, N.Y., prepared on the behalf of President Lincoln a manual based on international law (the Lieber Code) which was put into effect for the first time in 1863 for the Union Army of the United States in the American Civil War”.

This Lieber Code was “the first attempt to set down, in a single set of instructions for forces in the field, the laws and customs of war”. This is very clear. Francis Lieber was “the first to promulgate a codification of the law of war for soldiers”. He was “the first” to codify the rules of war.

In a sense, this is true. At 157 articles, no other instrument had ever attempted such a detailed restatement of the laws of war. And yet, in another sense, it is wrong. Francis Lieber may have been the first to write 157 articles on how to regulate war, but he was not the first to write articles – as in, any amount –on how to regulate war. Unbeknownst to many (and absolutely and completely absent from almost every single international humanitarian law textbook), this honour befalls to a different set of articles contained in a treaty signed at a time when Lieber was still a young Prussian veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, bent on getting into trouble with Prussian authorities for his political activism. Decades before his Code and thousands of kilometres away. But to tell this story, I have to go back a few years.

In 1813, as he was fighting for the independence of Colombia, South America’s star liberator, Simón Bolivar, decreed a “war to the death”. Any Spaniard, civilian or not, who did not support the cause of independence, would suffer death by his forces. The independentists’ war was getting out of hand. As Racine notes, during this period “there was an extensive campaign of symbolic violence” where “various types of massacres were carried out against specific targets and by specific groups, with racialized or gendered overtones often supplementing the more obvious political categories”.

This was a tumultuous period. In 1808, Napoleon had betrayed and invaded the Spanish homeland leading to the Peninsular War, a brutal and protracted guerrilla war remembered in Spain as the “Guerra de la Independencia Española”, the war of Spanish independence. The Spanish people rejected French rule under Napoleon’s brother, Joseph I (or as he was known in Spain, “Pepe Botella”, or “Joe Bottles”, for his alleged alcoholism and incompetence). The absence of a recognised monarchy had seismic consequences for the Spanish Empire, both within and beyond the Iberian Peninsula.

In the colonies, the crisis of the Spanish monarchy was the catalyst that the rebels in the Viceroyalties of New Granada and River Plate needed to start their revolutions. In Spain proper, the people decided to organise a parallel government to that of Joseph. To do this, they called for the establishment of Cortes – the Spanish equivalent of an elected parliament. This Cortes gathered for the first time in Cadiz, in 1810, and declared themselves the legitimate representatives of the Spanish people. Two years later, they would draft the Cadiz Constitution of 1812, formally declaring that “sovereignty resides in the Nation”, not the King.

At this point, and with the war against the French going well, formal adoption of the Cadiz Constitution became a common rallying cry among reformists and liberals both in Spain and Spanish America. The Constitution, in fact, left the door open to resolve the so-called “American question” in ways that could be offered instead of full independence. Article 11 of the Cadiz Constitution noted “a more convenient division of Spanish territory will be undertaken by a constitutional law, after the political circumstances of the Nation so allow it”. This future arrangement interested those moderates that sought to establish a sort of Federal government in the Spanish Empire, with the American Viceroyalties attaining equal status, rights and representation to those of the Kingdom of Spain.

Alas, after the final defeat of the French, in 1813, and the return of the Spanish King, the Cortes were dissolved, and the Constitution set aside. Absolutism was back, with a vengeance. Spain would remain an absolutist monarchy and the colonies would remain colonies. Bolivar’s response, predictably, was “war to the death”.

In 1820, however, the Spanish revolted against their King, demanding the return of the Cadiz Constitution and the establishment of limited government. After the success of the revolution, the new (and short lived) liberal Spanish government circulated instructions to its commanders to enter into negotiations to resolve the so-called “American question” through peaceful means.

After a decade of internecine conflict, peaceful resolution was impossible. Bolivar would not be swayed from the independentist cause. At the same time, Bolivar’s troops were tired and stalling for a few weeks of negotiations with Spain would give them a respite. Protracted negotiations with Spain, therefore, were to his advantage, even if not to his liking. Both parties sat down in the city of Trujillo, in northwest Venezuela, to put an end to hostilities.

As a result of these negotiations, and with any kind of final agreement far from any prospect, Spanish and rebel forces signed two treaties known as the Armistice of Trujillo and the Treaty for the Regularization of War. This latter is of particular importance, because it is specifically designed to address the ongoing “war to the death”. As its Preamble noted, its purpose was to “express to the world the horror with which [the parties] see the war of extermination that has devastated until now these territories, turning them into a theatre of blood”. The treaty was therefore drafted “in accordance with the laws of enlightened nations [naciones cultas], and the most liberal and philanthropic principles”. Its main rule, set out in Article 1, was clear: “The war between Spain and Colombia will be made as is made by civilised peoples, so long as these practices do not contradict any of the articles of the present treaty, which must be the first and most inviolable rule of both governments”.  

These rules of “civilised peoples”, provided for the exchange and humane treatment of prisoners of war and for the protection of the wounded, anticipating the Lieber Code by almost half a century. The key difference, however, was Article 11:

“[T]he inhabitants of the peoples that were alternatively occupied by the arms of either government will be highly respected, will enjoy broad and absolute freedom and security, whatever their past or current views, destination, services and conduct, with regards to the belligerent parties”.

Nothing like this exists in the Lieber Code. As Samuel Moyn recently noted, “[Lieber’s] project shared almost nothing of the aspiration for humane war that Swiss gentlemen breathed deeply across the ocean at the same time”. For Lieber, says Moyn, humanity in war was a “fringe benefit, rather than a true goal”. Indeed, Lieber says, while “[t]he principle has been more and more acknowledged that the unarmed citizen is to be spared in person, property, and honor”, this is only mandated “as much as the exigencies of war will admit”.

No such qualification exists in the Regularisation Treaty of 1820. In fact, while Lieber’s Code takes express care to state that the belligerents can in fact kill and wound civilians if military necessity so demands it, through Article 1 of the Regularisation Treaty, its protective provisions were “the first and most inviolable rule of both governments”, meaning that, at least nominally, occupied civilian populations were entitled to “enjoy broad and absolute freedom and security”, even if this was inconducive to military necessity. In fact, Article 13 of the treaty states that “the generals of the armies, the division chiefs, and all authorities will be bound to faithfully and strictly comply with this treaty, subject to the most severe penalties in case of violation, being both governments responsible for its exact and religious compliance, under guaranty of good faith and national honour”. Military necessity is not even mentioned once.

Imagine a world where it is the Regularisation Treaty of 1820, not the Lieber Code of 1863, that would be widely recognised as “the first”. Of course, this exercise in contingency brings about two fundamental questions: (i) Why would such a humanitarian clause even exist? And (ii) Why was this treaty forgotten? Lets start with the first one.

It is important to underline that the civilian protection provisions of the Regularisation Treaty were not the product of any kind of heightened sensibility of the Ibero-American law of war tradition. As noted above, “war to the death” had been the go-to way to conduct hostilities until that point. A detailed historical exploration of these causes are beyond the scope of a single blog post, but there are interesting clues sprinkled through the historical record.

It just so happened that many of the combatants in the wars of South American independence, both in the Royalist and Independentist sides, were veterans of the Peninsular War. As Racine notes, they “had brought their prejudices and tactics along with them to the Venezuelan theatre”, which was usually not a good thing. The one positive exception involved the glorious and heroic tale of the Siege of Zaragoza. At Zaragoza, in 1809, the French had encountered fierce and relentless resistance from the Spanish garrison. Fighting was brutal and carried out street by street, leading to tens of thousands of deaths and the general destruction of city infrastructure. But the Zaragozans refused to surrender, rallying their forces to the cry of “yes to destruction, no to surrender!” [¡destrucción sí; rendición no!].

Eventually, both Spanish and French leadership recognised that a Spanish victory would be impossible and that the city would need to be surrendered. However, blanket capitulation would have been utterly unacceptable to the city’s population. When terms were agreed, therefore, the famous Capitulation of Zaragoza incorporated a civilian pardon as a way to “vanish within reason the idea of capitulation that so much tormented Zaragozans” (p. 109). Instead of a defeat that left them at the mercy of a victorious army, the French allowed the Zaragozans to perceive their sacrifices as having stolen merely phyrric victory for the French. In fact, the Capitulation of Zaragoza is, to this date, honoured in Spain as heroic resistance, rather than defeat.

This Zaragozan conquest of a civilian immunity was seared in the minds of all the Peninsular veterans now fighting in Venezuela. The civilian immunity clause of the Capitulation of Zaragoza thus frequently crept its way into the capitulations signed in South America.

Thus, for example, in 1812, when Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda capitulated before Domingo de Monteverde, the Spanish Captain-General of Venezuela, the treaty “included an amnesty clause that guaranteed the safety of the lives and property of patriot sympathizers”. This was also the case of the 1823 Capitulation of Zulia, by which the defeated Royalist forces handed the city of Maracaibo to Colombian forces. Article 9 of this Capitulation established that “the neighbours and inhabitants of Maracaibo and its Province will be treated in equal fashion [en la misma], in accordance with the protective laws of the Republic, whichever their conduct and opinions during the occupation of this country by the Spanish troops under the command of Mr. General Moráles, subjecting everything to an absolute oblivion [dándose todo á un olvido absoluto] and ensuring that their persons and properties are highly respected, and that they will have support to address their just complaints to the constituted authorities”. Civilians, in fact, both Spanish and Colombian, wherever their allegiances lied, where given free transport for themselves and their families to the island of Cuba, which remained under Spanish control. Similar provisions can be found in the Capitulation of Puerto Cabello of 1823 and the Capitulation of Ayacucho of 1824.

These provisions, it should be noted, were often not complied, but it does seem that at least the 1820 Treaty had a more lasting legacy. As Castaño Zuluaga concludes, “after Trujillo, the conduct of the war will have other characteristics, more chivalrous, giving it a display of courtesy [una paraphernalia de cortesía] to the degree that everything became protocol between the leaders of both sides”.

So, what happened? Why was the Regularisation Treaty forgotten? Well, after Bolivar’s ultimate defeat of the Spanish, in 1824, the new and independent American republics found themselves in a very weakened geopolitical position. This is something I have touched upon several times in past posts (see e.g. here), so I will be brief. In essence, Latin America faced a very real risk of recolonisation and/or loss of territory to European empires. In 1833, the United Kingdom took the Malvinas islands from Argentina. Buenos Aires, the Argentinean capital, was blockaded by French and/or British forces in 1838, 1845, and 1850. The Peruvian Chincha islands were occupied by Spain in 1864 and the Chilean port of Valparaíso was bombarded in 1866, also by Spain. Mexico, in fact, was invaded by France in 1862. Independent Latin America in general needed to strengthen and legitimise its own position in the international community, as independent states, not colonisable land ready for invasion. In the mid-19th century, the way to do this was to demonstrate to Europe that Latin America was part of the “civilised” world – and to do this, the region turned to international law.

As is well known, Latin American scholars proposed a right of absolute non-intervention in international law, seeking to end European interventionism and restrict the use of force. In so doing, they veered away from issues of jus in bello, focusing with heightened interest on the jus ad bellum instead. While Latin American scholarly and diplomatic interventions challenged the canon of use of force, they were mostly neutral in terms of the laws of war. Translation and incorporation of European and US texts on the law of nations into Spanish was a way to signal that Latin America was still part of the “family of civilised states” even after independence. As part of this process, Mexican publicist José Díaz Covarrubias translated the work of Johan Caspar Bluntschli into Spanish in 1871, including a copy of the Lieber Code. With the passage of time, the politics of knowledge in the mid to late 19th century meant that Latin American jus in bello was Europeanised and Americanised, leaving behind the memory of the Regularisation Treaty as a local practice, relevant only for Colombia and Spain at a very specific time and place.

In order to contribute to raise awareness of this treaty, I will end this post by transcribing its text below. I have taken the text from: Luis Ociel Castaño Zuluaga, ‘Antecedentes Del Derecho Humaniario Bélico En El Contexto de La Independencia Hispanoamericana (1808-1826)’ (2012) XXXIV Revista de Estudios Histórico Jurídicos 323.

Tratado de Regularización de la Guerra

Deseando los Gobiernos de España y de Colombia manifestar al mundo el horror con que ven la guerra de exterminio que ha devastado hasta ahora estos territorios convirtiéndolos en un teatro de sangre; y deseando aprovechar el primer momento de calma que se presenta para regularizar la guerra que existe entre ambos gobiernos, conforme a las leyes de las naciones cultas, y a los principios más liberales y filantrópicos, han convenido en nombrar comisionados que estipulen y fijen un tratado de regularización de la guerra, y en efecto han nombrado el excelentísimo señor General en Jefe del Ejército Expedicionario de Costa Firme, don Pablo Morillo, conde de Cartagena, de parte del Gobierno español, a los señores Jefe Superior Político de Venezuela, brigadier don Ramón Correa; alcalde primero constitucional de Caracas, don Juan Rodríguez de Toro, y don Francisco González de Linares; y el excelentísimo señor Presidente de la República de Colombia, Simón Bolívar, como Jefe de la República, de parte de ella, a los señores general de brigada Antonio José de Sucre, coronel Pedro Briceño Méndez y teniente coronel José Gabriel Pérez, los cuales, autorizados competentemente, han convenido y convienen en los siguientes artículos:

art. 1º La guerra entre España y Colombia se hará como la hacen los pueblos civilizados, siempre que no se opongan las prácticas de ellos a algunos de los artículos del presente tratado que deben ser la primera y más inviolable regla de ambos gobiernos. art.

2º Todo militar o dependiente de un ejército, tomado en el campo de batalla, aun antes de decidirse ésta, se conservará y guardará como prisionero y respetado conforme a su grado, hasta lograr su canje.

art. 3º Serán igualmente prisioneros de guerra y tratados de la misma manera que estos, los que se tomen en marchas, destacamentos, partidas, plazas, guarniciones o puestos fortificados, aunque estos sean tomados al asalto, y en la marina los que lo sean aun al abordaje.

art. 4º Los militares o dependientes de un ejército, que se aprehendan heridos o enfermos en los hospitales o fuera de ellos, no serán prisioneros de guerra, y tendrán libertad para restituirse a las banderas a que pertenezcan luego que se hayan restablecido. Interesándose tan vivamente la humanidad en favor de estos desgraciados que se han sacrificado a su patria y a su gobierno, deberán ser tratados con doble consideración y respeto que los prisioneros de guerra y se les prestará por lo menos la misma asistencia, cuidados y alivios que a los heridos y enfermos del ejército que los tenga en su poder.

art. 5º Los prisioneros de guerra se canjearán clase por clase y grado por grado, o dando por superiores el número de subalternos que es de costumbre entre las naciones cultas.

art. 6º Se comprenderá también en el canje, y serán tratados como prisioneros de guerra, aquellos militares o paisanos que individualmente o en partidas hagan el servicio de reconocer, observar o tomar noticias de un ejército para darlas al jefe de otro.

art. 7º Originándose esta guerra de la diferencia de opiniones; hallándose ligados con vínculos y relaciones muy estrechas los individuos que han combatido encarnizadamente por las dos causas; y deseando economizar la sangre, cuanto sea posible, se establece que los militares o empleados que habiendo antes servido a cualquiera de los dos gobiernos, hayan desertado de sus banderas y se aprehendan alistados bajo las banderas del otro, no pueden ser castigados con pena capital. Lo mismo se entenderá con respecto a los conspiradores y desafectos de una y otra parte.

art. 8º El canje de prisioneros será obligatorio, y se hará a la más posible brevedad. Deberán, pues, conservarse siempre los prisioneros dentro del territorio de Colombia, cualquiera que sea su grado o dignidad; y por ningún motivo ni pretexto se alejarán del país, llevándolos a sufrir males mayores que la misma muerte.

art. 9º Los jefes de los ejércitos exigirán que los prisioneros sean asistidos conforme quiera el gobierno a quien estos correspondan, haciéndose abonar mutuamente los costos que causaren. Los mismos jefes tendrán derecho de nombrar comisarios, que trasladados a los depósitos de los prisioneros respectivos, examinen su situación, procuren mejorarla y hacer menos penosa su existencia.

art. 10 Los prisioneros existentes actualmente gozarán de los beneficios de este tratado.

art. 11 Los habitantes de los pueblos que alternativamente se ocuparen por las armas de ambos gobiernos, serán altamente respetados, gozarán de una extensa y absoluta libertad y seguridad, sean cuales fueren o hayan sido sus opiniones, destinos, servicios y conducta, con respecto a las partes beligerantes.

art. 12 Los cadáveres de los que gloriosamente terminen su carrera en los campos de batalla, o en cualquier combate, choque o encuentro entre las armas de los dos gobiernos, recibirán los últimos honores de la sepultura o se quemarán cuando por su número, o por la premura del tiempo no pueda hacerse lo primero. El ejército o cuerpo vencedor será el obligado a cumplir con este sagrado deber, del cual sólo por una circunstancia muy grave y singular podrá descargarse avisándolo inmediatamente a las autoridades del territorio en que se halle, para que lo haga. Los cadáveres que de una y otra parte se reclamen por el gobierno, o por los particulares, no podrán negarse, y se concederá la comunicación necesaria para transportarlos.

art. 13 Los generales de los ejércitos, los jefes de las divisiones, y todas las autoridades estarán obligadas a guardar fiel y estrictamente este tratado, y sujetos a las más severas penas por su infracción, constituyéndose ambos gobiernos responsables a su exacto y religioso cumplimiento, bajo la garantía de la buena fe y el honor nacional.

art. 14 El presente tratado será ratificado y canjeado dentro de sesenta horas, y empezará a cumplirse desde el momento de la ratificación y canje.

Y en fe de que así lo convenimos y acordamos nosotros los comisionados de los Gobiernos de España y de Colombia, firmamos dos, de un tenor, en la ciudad de Trujillo, a las diez de la noche del veintiséis de noviembre de mil ochocientos veinte.

Ramón Correa.- Antonio José Sucre.- Juan Rodríguez Toro.- Pedro Briceño Méndez.- Francisco González Linares.- José Gabriel Pérez.

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History of International Law, International Humanitarian Law, Latin & South America
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