Giulia Pacini


Some of the most heated discussions in the eighteenth century revolved around the issue of human rights and the fundamentals of international law. Throughout this period, jurists and philosophers applied themselves to the study of the law of nations and the rules of diplomacy. Repeatedly they pointed to the value of establishing an active international community, debating the extent of the political role of this community, as well as the laws that should ideally regulate international relations. They mainly attempted to theorize what Castel de Saint-Pierre, in 1712, called a “system of peace,” that is, a political system capable of ensuring peace and happiness throughout Europe. Only on occasion did someone bring up the idea that the international community might have duties towards individuals who lost their homes as the result of civil or foreign wars. In 1758, for example, Emmerich de Vattel argued that granting refuge meant more than simply granting a person entry within a country’s borders: “le Souverain ne peut accorder l’entrée de ses États pour faire tomber les étrangers dans un piège. Dès qu’il les reçoit, il s’engage à les protéger comme ses propres sujets, à les faire jouir, autant qu’il dépend de lui, d’une entière sûreté.” As he described the humanitarian objectives of national and international laws, Vattel took care to underline the ongoing nature of a country’s responsibilities towards the people it agreed to host. This was a groundbreaking concept, both because of the ideals it represented, and because, at the time, European governments had not yet developed national or international policies with which to address the situation of refugees. Until the end of the eighteenth century, nations tended to respond to the arrival of foreign exiles—such as French Huguenots, Spanish Jews, English Jacobites, and Dutch Patriots—on the basis of self-serving and ad hoc political or economic calculations.