The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law (1758)

Emmerich de Vattel

Of the Observance of Justice Between Nations

§ 63. Necessity of the observance of justice in human society.
JUSTICE is the basis of all society, the sure bond of all commerce. Human society, far from being an intercourse of assistance and good offices, would be no longer any thing but a vast scene of robbery, if no respect were paid to this virtue, which secures to every one his own. It is still more necessary between nations than between individuals; because injustice produces more dreadful consequences in the quarrels of these powerful bodies politic, and it is more difficult to obtain redress. The obligation imposed on all men to be just is easily demonstrated from the law of nature. We here take that obligation for granted (as being sufficiently known), and content ourselves with observing that it is not only indispensably binding on nations (Prelim. § 5), but even still more sacred with respect to them, from the importance of its consequences.

§ 64. Obligation of all nations to cultivate and observe justice.
All nations are therefore under a strict obligation to cultivate justice towards each other, to observe it scrupulously, and carefully to abstain from every thing that may violate it. Each ought to render to the others what belongs to them, to respect their rights, and to leave them in the peaceable enjoyment of them.1

§ 65. Right of refusing to submit to injustice.
From this indispensable obligation which nature imposes on nations, as well as from those obligations which each nation owes to herself, results the right of every state not to suffer any of her rights to be taken away, or any thing which lawfully belongs to her: for, in opposing this, she only acts in conformity to all her duties; and therein consists the right (§ 49).

§ 66. This right is a perfect one.
This right is a perfect one, — that is to say, it is accompanied with the right of using force in order to assert it. In vain would nature give us a right to refuse submitting to injustice, — in vain would she oblige others to be just in their dealings with us, if we could not lawfully make use of force, when they refused to discharge this duty. The just would lie at the mercy of avarice and injustice, and all their rights would soon become useless.

§ 67. It produces 1. The right of defense.
From the foregoing right arise, as distinct branches, first, the right of a just defense, which belongs to every nation, — or the right of making use of force against whoever attacks her and her rights. This is the foundation of defensive war.

§ 68.2 The right of doing ourselves justice.
Secondly, the right to obtain justice by force, if we cannot obtain it otherwise, or to pursue our right by force of arms. This is the foundation of offensive war.

§ 69. The right of punishing injustice.
An intentional act of injustice is undoubtedly an injury. We have, then, a right to punish if, as we have shown above, in speaking of injuries in general (§ 52). The right of refusing to suffer injustice is a branch of the right to security.

§ 70. Right of all nations against one that openly despises justice.
Let us apply to the unjust what we have said above (§ 53) of a mischievous nation. If there were a people who made open profession of trampling justice under foot, — who despised and violated the rights of others whenever they found an opportunity, — the interest of human society would authorize all the other nations to form a confederacy in order to humble and chastise the delinquents. We do not here forget the maxim established in our Preliminaries, that it does not belong to nations to usurp the power of being judges of each other. In particular cases, where there is room for the smallest doubt, it ought to be supposed that each of the parties may have some right: and the injustice of the party that has committed the injury may proceed from error, and not from a general contempt of justice. But if, by her constant maxims, and by the whole tenor of her conduct, a nation evidently proves herself to be actuated by that mischievous disposition, — if she regards no right as sacred, — the safety of the human race requires that she should be repressed. To form and support an unjust pretension, is only doing an injury to the party whose interests are affected by that pretension; but, to despise justice in general, is doing an injury to all nations.


     1.    Might not his duty be extended to the execution of sentences passed in other countries according to the necessary and usual forms? — On this subject M. Van Beuningin wrote as follows to M. DeWitt, Oct. 15, 1666: “By what the courts of Holland have dec reed in the affair of one Koningh, of Rotterdam, I see they suppose that every judgment pronounced by the parliaments of France against the inhabitants of Holland in judicio contradictorio, ought to be executed on requisition made by those parliaments. Bull do not know that the tribunals of this country act in the same manner with respect to sentences passed in Holland; and, if they do not, an agreement might be made, that sentences passed on either side against subjects of the other state shall only take effect on such property as the condemned party is found to possess in the state where the sentence has been given.