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

Emmerich de Vattel

Of the Right to Security, and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations

§ 49. Right to security.
IN vain does nature prescribe to nations, as well as to individuals, the care of self-preservation, and of advancing their own perfection and happiness, if she does not give them a right to preserve themselves from every thing that might render this care ineffectual. This right is nothing more than a moral power of acting, that is, the power of doing what is morally possible — what is proper and conformable to our duties. We have, then, in general, a right to do whatever is necessary to the discharge of our duties. Every nation, as well as every man, has, therefore, a right to prevent other nations from obstructing her preservation, her perfection, and happiness, — that is, to preserve herself from all injuries (§ 18): and this right is a perfect one, since it is given to satisfy a natural and indispensable obligation: for, when we cannot use constraint in order to cause our rights to be respected, their effects are very uncertain. It is this right to preserve herself from all injury that is called the right to security.

§ 50. It produces the right of resistance;
It is safest to prevent the evil when it can be prevented. A nation has a right to resist an injurious attempt, and to make use of force and every honorable expedient against whosoever is actually engaged in opposition to her, and even to anticipate his machinations, observing, however, not to attack him upon vague and uncertain suspicions, lest she should incur the imputation of becoming herself an unjust aggressor.

§ 51. and that of obtaining reparation;
When the evil is done, the same right to security authorizes the offended party to endeavor to obtain a complete reparation, and to employ force for that purpose if necessary.

§ 52. and the right of punishing.
Finally, the offended party have a right to provide for their future security, and to chastise the offender, by inflicting upon him a punishment capable of deterring him thenceforward from similar aggressions, and of intimidating those who might be tempted to imitate him. They may even, if necessary, disable the aggressor from doing further injury. They only make use of their right in all these measures, which they adopt with good reason: and if evil thence results to him who has reduced them to the necessity of taking such steps, he must impute the consequences only to his own injustice.

§ 53. Right of all nations against a mischievous people.
If, then, there is anywhere a nation of a restless and mischievous disposition, ever ready to injure others, to traverse their designs and to excite domestic disturbances in their dominions, — it is not to be doubted that all the others have a right to form a coalition in order to repress and chastise that nation, and to put it for ever after out of her power to injure them. Such would be the just fruits of the policy which Machiavelli praises in Caesar Borgia. The conduct followed by Philip II. king of Spain, was calculated to unite all Europe against him; and it was from just reasons that Henry the Great formed the design of humbling a power whose strength was formidable, and whose maxims were pernicious.

The three preceding propositions are so many principles that furnish the various foundations for a just war, as we shall see in the proper place.

§ 54. No nation has a right to interfere in the government of another state.
It is an evident consequence of the liberty and independence of nations, that all have a right to be governed as they think proper, and that no state has the smallest right to interfere in the government of another. Of all the rights that can belong to a nation, sovereignty is, doubtless, the most precious, and that which other nations ought the most scrupulously to respect, if they would not do her an injury.2

§ 55. One sovereign cannot make himself the judge of the conduct of another.
The sovereign is he to whom the nation has intrusted the empire and the care of the government: she has invested him with her rights; she alone is directly interested in the manner in which the conductor she has chosen makes use of his power. It does not, then, belong to any foreign power to take cognizance of the administration of that sovereign, to set himself up for a judge of his conduct, and to oblige him to alter it. If he loads his subjects with taxes, and if he treats them with severity, the nation alone is concerned in the business; and no other is called upon to oblige him to amend his conduct and follow more wise and equitable maxims. It is the part of prudence to point out the occasions when officious and amicable representations may be made to him. the Spaniards violated all rules when they set themselves up as judges of the Inca Atahualpa. If that prince had violated the law of nations with respect to them, they would have had a right to punish him. But they accused him of having put some of his subjects to death, of having had several wives, etc. — things, for which he was not at all accountable to them; and, to fill up the measure of their extravagant injustice, they condemned him by the laws of Spain.3

§ 56. How far lawful to interfere in a quarrel between a sovereign and his subjects.
But, if the prince, by violating the fundamental laws, gives his subjects a legal right to resist him, — if tyranny, becoming insupportable, obliges the nation to rise in their own defense, — every foreign power has a right to succor an oppressed people who implore their assistance. The English justly complained of James II. The nobility and the most distinguished patriots having determined to check him in the prosecution of his schemes, which manifestly tended to overthrow the constitution, and to destroy the liberties and the religion of the people, applied for assistance to the United Provinces. The authority of the Prince of Orange had, doubtless, an influence on the deliberations of the states-general; but it did not lead them to the commission of an act of injustice: for, when a people, from good reasons take up arms against an oppressor, it is but an act of justice and generosity to assist brave men in the defense of their liberties. Whenever, therefore, matters are carried so far as to produce a civil war, foreign powers may assist that party which appears to them to have justice on its side. He who assists an odious tyrant, — he who declares for an unjust and rebellious people, — violates his duty. But, when the bands of the political society are broken, or at least suspended, between the sovereign and his people, the contending parties may then be considered as two distinct powers; and, since they are both equally independent of all foreign authority, nobody has a right to judge them. Either may be in the right; and each of those who grant their assistance may imagine that he is acting in support of the better cause. It follows, then in virtue of the voluntary law of nations (see Prelim. § 21), that the two parties may act as having an equal right, and behave to each other accordingly till the decision of the affair.

But we ought not to abuse this maxim, and make a handle of it to authorize odious machinations against the internal tranquillity of states. It is a violation of the law of nations to invite those subject to revolt who actually pay obedience to their sovereign, though they complain of his government.

The practice of nations is conformable to our maxims. When the German protestants came to the assistance of the reformed party in France, the court never attempted to treat them otherwise than on the usual footing of enemies in general, and according to the laws of war. France was at the same time engaged in assisting the Netherlands then in arms against Spain, and expected that her troops should be considered in no other light than as auxiliaries in a regular war. But no power ever fails to complain, as of an atrocious wrong, if any one attempts by his emissaries to excite his subjects to revolt.

As to those monsters who, under the title of sovereigns, render themselves the scourges and horror of the human race, they are savage beasts, whom every brave man may justly exterminate from the face of the earth. All antiquity has praised Hercules for delivering the world from an Antæs, a Busiris, and a Diomede.

§ 57. Right of opposing the interference of foreign powers in the affairs of government.
After having established the position that foreign nations have no right to interfere in the government of an independent state, it is not difficult to prove that the latter has a right to oppose such interference. To govern herself according to her own pleasure, is a necessary part of her independence. A sovereign state cannot be constrained in this respect, except it be from a particular right which she has herself given to other states by her treaties; and, even if she has given them such a right, yet it cannot, in an affair of so delicate a nature as that of government, be extended beyond the clear and express terms of the treaties. In every other case, a sovereign has a right to treat those as enemies who attempt to interfere in his domestic affairs otherwise than by their good offices.

§ 58. The same rights with respect to religion.
Religion is in every sense an object of great importance to a nation, and one of the most interesting subjects on which the government can be employed. An independent people are accountable for their religion to God alone; in this particular, as in every other, they have a light to regulate their conduct according to the dictates of their own conscience, and to prevent all foreign interference in an affair of so delicate a nature.4 The custom, long kept up in Christendom of causing all the affairs of religion to be decided and regulated in a general council, could only have been introduced by the singular circumstance of the submission of the whole church to the same civil government, — the Roman empire. When that empire was overthrown, and gave place to many independent kingdoms, this custom was found contrary to the first principles of government, to the very idea of independent states and political societies. It was, however, long supported by prejudice, ignorance, and superstition, by the authority of the popes and the power of the clergy, and still respected even at the time of the reformation. The states who had embraced the reformed religion offered to submit to the decisions of an impartial council lawfully assembled. At present they would not hesitate to declare, that, in matters of religion, they are equally independent of every power on earth, as they are in the affairs of civil government. The general and absolute authority of the pope and council is absurd in every other system than that of those popes who strove to unite all Christendom in a single body, of which they pretended to be the supreme monarchs.5 But even Catholic sovereigns have endeavored to restrain that authority within such limits as are consistent with their supreme power: they do not receive the decrees of councils or the popes’ bulls till they have caused them to be examined; and these ecclesiastical laws are of no force in their dominions unless confirmed by the prince. In the first book of this work, Chap. XII. we have sufficiently established the rights of a state in matters of religion; and we introduce them hero again, only to draw just consequences from them with respect to the conduct which nations ought to observe towards each other.

§ 59 No nation can be constrained with respect to religion.
It is, then, certain that we cannot in opposition to the will of a nation, interfere in her religious concerns, without violating her rights, and doing her an injury. Much less are we allowed to employ force of arms to oblige her to receive a doctrine and a worship which we consider as divine. What right have men to set themselves up as the defenders and protectors of the cause of God? He can, whenever he pleases, lead nations to the knowledge of himself, by more effectual means than those of violence. Persecutors make no true converts. The monstrous maxim of extending religion by the sword, is a subversion of the rights of mankind, and the most terrible scourge of nations.

§ 60. Offices of humanity in these matters. Missionaries.
But it is an office of humanity to labor, by mild and lawful means, to persuade a nation to receive a religion which we believe to be the only one that is true and salutary. Missionaries may be sent to instruct the people; and this care is altogether conformable to the attention which every nation owes to the perfection and happiness of others. But it must be observed, that, in order to avoid doing an injury to the rights of a sovereign, the missionaries ought to abstain from preaching clandestinely, or without his permission, a new doctrine to his people. He may refuse to accept their proffered services; and, if he orders them to leave his dominions, they ought to obey. They should have a very express order from the King of kings, before they can lawfully disobey a sovereign who commands according to the extent of his power; and the prince who is not convinced of that extraordinary order of the Deity, will do no more than exert his lawful rights, in punishing a missionary for disobedience. But, what if the nation, or a considerable part of the people, are desirous of retaining the missionary, and following his doctrine? In a former part of the work (Book I. §§ 128-136), we have established the rights of the nation and those of the citizens; and thither we refer for an answer to this question.

Every madman will fancy he is fighting in the cause of God, and every aspiring spirit will use that pretext as a cloak for his ambition. While Charlemagne was ravaging Saxony with fire and sword, in order to plant Christianity there, the successors of Mohammed were ravaging Asia and Africa, to establish the Koran in those parts.

§ 61. Circumspection to be used.
This is a very delicate subject; and we cannot authorize an inconsiderate zeal for making proselytes, without endangering the tranquillity of all nations, and even exposing those who are engaged in making converts to act inconsistently with their duty, at the very time they imagine they are accomplishing the most meritorious work. For, it is certainly performing a very bad office to a nation and doing her an essential injury, to spread a false and dangerous religion among the inhabitants. Now, there is no person who does not believe his own religion to be the only true and safe one. Recommend, kindle in all hearts, the ardent zeal of the missionaries, and you will see Europe inundated with Lamas, Bonzes, and Dervises, while monks of all kinds will overrun Asia and Africa. Protestant ministers will crowd to Spain and Italy, in defiance of the Inquisition, while the Jesuits will spread themselves among the Protestants in order to bring them back into the pale of the church. Let the Catholics reproach the Protestants as much as they please with their lukewarmness, the conduct of the latter is undoubtedly more agreeable to reason and the law of nations. True zeal applies itself to the task of making a holy religion flourish in the countries where it is received, and of rendering it useful to the manners of the people and to the state: and, without forestalling the dispositions of Providence, it can find sufficient employment at home, until an invitation come from foreign nations, or a very evident commission be given from heaven, to preach that religion abroad. Finally, let us add, that before we can lawfully undertake to preach a particular religion to the various nations of the earth, we must ourselves be thoroughly convinced of its truth by the most serious examination. — “What! can Christians doubt of their religion?” — The Mohammedan entertains no doubt of his. Be ever ready to impart your knowledge, — simply and sincerely expose the principles of your belief to those who are desirous of hearing you: instruct them, convince them by evidence, but seek not to hurry them away with the fire of enthusiasm. It is a sufficient charge on each of us, to be responsible for his own conscience. — Thus, neither will the light of knowledge be refused to any who wish to receive it, nor will a turbulent zeal disturb the peace of nations.

§ 62. What a sovereign may do in favor of those who profess his religion in another state.
When a religion is persecuted in one country, foreign nations who profess it may intercede for their brethren: but this is all they can lawfully do, unless the persecution be carried to an intolerable excess: then, indeed, it becomes a case of manifest tyranny, in opposition to which all nations are allowed to assist an unhappy people (§ 56). A regard to their own safety may also authorize them to undertake the defense of the persecuted sufferers A king of France replied to the ambassadors who solicited him to suffer his subjects of the reformed religion to live in peace, “that he was master in his own kingdom,” But the Protestant sovereigns, who saw a general conspiracy of the Catholics obstinately bent on their destruction, were so far masters on their side as to be at liberty to give assistance to a body of men who might strengthen their party, and help them to preserve themselves from the ruin with which they were threatened. All distinctions of states and nations are to be disregarded, when there is question of forming a coalition against a set of madmen who would exterminate all those that do not implicitly receive their doctrines.


     1.    As to the independence of nations, see in general, Cours de Droit Public. Paris, A.D. 1830, tom. 2, 1st part, article ii. pp. 3 to 15.
     2.    Nor has a subject of one state a right to enter into any contract with, or to assist the revolted colony of another before the same has been formally recognized as an independent state by its own government; and if a state assist a revolted colony, it is just ground of war on the part of the parent state. Thompson v. Powles, 2 Simon’s Rep. 194; Taylor v. Barclay, id. 213 Ante, chap. 1, note 18.
     3.    Garcillasso de la Vega.
     4.    When, however, we see a party inflamed with deadly hatred against the religion we profess, and a neighboring prince persecuting in consequence the professors of that religion, it is lawful for us to give assistance to the sufferers, — as it was well remarked by James I. of England to Bouillon the ambassador of Mary de Medici, queen-regent of France, — “When my neighbors are attacked in a quarrel in which I am interested, the law of nature requires that I should anticipate and prevent the evil which may thence result to myself.” — Le Vassor, History of Louis XIII.
     5.    See above, § 46, and Bodinus’s Republic, book i. c, ix, with his quotations, p.m. 139.