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Randall Lesaffer’s Museum of the History of International Law

When we decided to digitize Clive Parry’s 231 print volumes of the Consolidated Treaty Series (CTS) covering the period 1648 to 1919, we puzzled over how to make the treaties it covered more approachable to scholars who were not already deeply immersed in historical research in international law. The problem wasn’t so much the diversity of languages or the fact that we could only afford to capture them as PDFs. Rather it was the fact that there were 16,192 of them and a great many had quite generic names that gave no indication of their subject matter, historical importance, or how they related to one another.

We set out to find someone who could breathe life into the collection, bringing to the surface these connections, demonstrating the role of treaties in the making of the modern world, and guiding us through apparently obscure provisions. In Randall Lesaffer we struck gold. The verb “to curate” is somewhat overused these days to describe any act of hand-picking, but curating is exactly what he has done with this vast collection of artefacts.

In over 60 editorials published on the Oxford Historical Treaties (OHT) site, mostly authored by Randall but occasionally commissioned by him and written by other scholars, we benefited from several distinct genres of commentary.

First there are the tapestries woven from a wide range of documents such as his article on The Peace of Utrecht and the Balance of Power. As the title suggests Randall explains not only the relationship between the War of the Spanish Succession and the Peace of Utrecht but also how the treaties that flowed from this Peace introduced the concept of the balance of power as a foundational principle of the positive law of nations. The article lists no fewer than 21 treaties included in the CTS which were signed at Utrecht plus a further 14 related treaties from the collection.

Then there are exhibits: common provisions drawn out and displayed together to show some of the patterns that emerged in treaty making. A typical example is the most recent, and sadly last, editorial authored by Randall. Entitled Closing Time it focuses on ratification provisions and the rituals that attended ratification. Linking these back to earlier Medieval practices the article shows how the Reformation saw a move away from reliance on Papal authority for dispute settlement and the threat of excommunication to ensure compliance with treaty provisions.

Yet another genre is the diorama. In Splitting the Distance Randall takes us out of the text and describes the significance of the physical location of the signing of a treaty. The Armistice of Tsilit was signed by Emperor Napoleon and Tsar Alexander on a raft in the middle of a river (a point representing the thalweg, or international boundary) so that neither would need to be a guest on the other’s territory.

One would need several lifetimes to cover all of the content of this collection and understandably Randall has decided to step down from this role as editor of OHT. We can but hope we will find someone to continue with this work and perhaps explore and explain some of the treaties that have intrigued the OUP team here over the years, such as those dealing with passports for corpses or why so many tackle the supply and taxation of salt. That will need to wait for another day. For now we extend our heartfelt thanks to Randall for bringing so much light to this fascinating aspect of international law and wish him all the very best.