Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law

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The Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law of 16 April 1856 was a diplomatic policy agreed to by 55 nations. Written by France and Great Britain, its primary goal was to abolish privateering, whereby a belligerent party gave formal permission for armed privately owned ships to seize enemy vessels. It also regulated the relationship between neutral and belligerent and shipping on the high seas introducing new prize rules.[1] They agreed on three major points: free ships make free goods, effective blockade, and no privateering. In return for surrendering the practice of seizing neutral goods on enemy ships, France insisted on Britain's abandoning its Rule of 1756 prohibiting neutral assumption of enemy coastal and colonial trade.[2]


On the conclusion of the Treaty of Paris, which was signed on 30 March 1856, putting an end to the Crimean War (1853–1856), the plenipotentiaries also signed this declaration at the suggestion of Count Walewski, the French plenipotentiary.[3] The declaration is the outcome of a modus vivendi signed between France and Britain in 1854, originally intended for the Crimean War. These two powers had agreed that they would not seize enemy goods on neutral vessels nor neutral goods on enemy vessels. The belligerents had also agreed that they would not issue letters of marque, which they had not done during the war. At the close of this war the principal states of Europe concluded that private armed ships, maintained at private cost for private gain, and often necessarily for a long time beyond the reach of the regular naval force of the state, could not be kept under proper control. The Declaration of Paris confirmed these rules and added to them the principle that blockades, in order to be obligatory, must be effective.

The Declaration did not as such make privateers into a new category of international criminals, but rather made it a treaty obligation of states that they refrain from commissioning privateers in the first place. Most states normally treated foreign privateers as pirates in any case.

Ultimately, 55 states ratified the Declaration, including Britain, Austria, France, Prussia, Russia, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire.[4] This treaty established maritime law among the major powers of Europe. It represented the first multilateral attempt to codify in times of peace rules which were to be applicable in the event of war. This declaration bound only its signatories when at war with each other, and left them free to use privateers when at war with other states.

The United States, which aimed at a complete exemption of non-contraband private property from capture at sea, withheld its formal adherence in 1857 when its “Marcy” amendment was not accepted by all powers, chiefly as a result of British influence. The US was also keen on maintaining privateers. It argued that, not possessing a great navy, it would be obliged in time of war to rely largely upon merchant ships commissioned as war vessels, and that therefore the abolition of privateering would be entirely in favour of European powers, whose large navies rendered them practically independent of such aid. Several other maritime states did not accede to the declaration, such as China, Venezuela, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador.[5]

In 1861, during the American Civil War, the United States declared that it would respect the principles of the declaration during hostilities. The Confederacy agreed to the provisions except for the right of privateering.[6] During the Spanish–American War of 1898, when the United States Government affirmed its policy of conducting hostilities in conformity with the dispositions of the declaration. Spain too, though not a party, declared its intention to abide by the declaration, but it expressly gave notice that it reserved its right to issue letters of marque. At the same time both belligerents organized services of auxiliary cruisers composed of merchant ships under the command of naval officers.

Some of the questions raised by this declaration were clarified by the 1907 Hague Convention.

The rules contained in this declaration later came to be considered as part of the general principles of international law and the United States too, though not formally a party, abides by provisions.[citation needed]

Signing parties[edit]

The following states signed the Paris Declaration:[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schmidt 2005, p. 75.
  2. ^ Warren F. Spencer, "The Mason Memorandum and the Diplomatic Origins of the Declaration of Paris." in Diplomacy in an Age of Nationalism (1971) pp. 44-66.
  3. ^ Barclay 1911
  4. ^ Ratifications.
  5. ^ International Red Cross, Status of Declaration
  6. ^ Callahan, James Morton, The Diplomatic History of the Southern Confederacy, p.119
  7. ^ "Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries: Declaration Respecting Maritime Law. Paris, 16 April 1856". International Committee of the Red Cross. Retrieved 20 May 2021.


  • Ronzitti, Natalino (1988). The Law of Naval Warfare: A Collection of Agreements and Documents with Commentaries. Martinus Nijhoff. p. 64 ,65. ISBN 90-247-3652-8.
  • Schmidt, Donald E. (2005). The Folly of War: American Foreign Policy, 1898-2005. p. 75. ISBN 0-87586-382-5.
  • Spencer, Warren F. "The Mason Memorandum and the Diplomatic Origins of the Declaration of Paris." in by N.N. Barker and M.L. Brown, eds. Diplomacy in an Age of Nationalism (1971) pp. 44–66.

Further reading[edit]

  • Barclay, Sir Thomas (1911). "Declaration of Paris" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 7 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 914. This cites:
  • T. Gibson Bowles, The Declaration of Paris of 1856: being an account of the maritime rights of Great Britain; a consideration of their importance; a history of their surrender by the signature of the Declaration of Paris (London, 1900) online
  • Sir Thomas Barclay, Problems of International Practice and Diplomacy (London, 1907), chap. xv. 2 online