In Memoriam: Frits Kalshoven

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The world has lost one of its greatest international humanitarian law scholars.

On Wednesday 6 September 2017, at the respectable age of 93, emeritus professor Frits Kalshoven passed away. Professor Kalshoven was one of the most well-known and respected international humanitarian law (IHL) scholars, but above all, he was a very kind, warm and humble person – insisting, for example, to always be addressed by his first name. He was a mentor on IHL for us, as he has been to so many. Indeed, for years, the first introduction to IHL for many students was his book “Constraints on the Waging of War”.

Frits began his career as an officer in the Royal Dutch Navy (1945-1967). During his service, he studied law in Leiden. After completing his studies in 1958, he taught law, including IHL, at the Royal Naval Academy. When he left the navy, he joined the law school of Leiden University, where he wrote his PhD on belligerent reprisals (1971), the publication of which is still regarded the standard work on this topic (and which was reprinted in 2005). Between 1975 and 1989, he held the Red Cross Chair in IHL at Leiden University and subsequently was a professor at Groningen University (1999-2002), before returning to Leiden as professor emeritus. As a member of the Dutch delegation, he negotiated, and was one of the drafters, of the 1977 Additional Protocols; and the Certain Conventional Weapons Convention of 1980.

Frits had an enormous passion for IHL. Although he gave his valedictory lecture in 1989 in Leiden, he never really actually retired, but rather continued to be actively involved in the humanitarian law field, helping to shape and develop it. Besides teaching full courses and guest lectures at various universities, he was the first Chairman of the UN Commission of Experts to investigate serious violations of IHL in the Former Yugoslavia (1992-1993), and was a member and president of the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (1991-2001). He was a long-term Advisor to the Board of the Netherlands Red Cross (1971-1993), and after that always ready to support its IHL department with advice and contributions to its events. Until the very last moment, he continued to attend international law events to engage with other scholars and practitioners, in nearby The Hague, but also in San Remo.

He published widely on IHL and other matters of public international law. A little known fact is that Constraints on the Waging of War was based on the materials he wrote for his IHL class at the naval academy, afterwards first published in Dutch, before converting it for the ICRC into the “Introduction to international humanitarian law” – and since then updating it (together with Liesbeth Zegveld) to its current 4th edition. In 2007, some of his extensive writing was collected in the 1100 page Reflections on the Law of War, but also afterwards, he continued writing (and publishing even last year) – as well as pursue other interests, such as taking up playing the violin at age 85.

Despite his knowledge and reputation, he was a humble person, always ready to guide and mentor young international lawyers with an interest in IHL. The Netherlands Red Cross honoured him by naming the yearly Dutch and Belgian IHL competition after him at the completion of the first edition in 2008. He was proud to have such an event named after him while still alive and well, and was visibly moved when we went to his house to ask him for permission to use his name for the competition – only feeling more comfortable with the idea when he was reminded that Jean Pictet had a worldwide competition named after him while alive. He tried to attend the finals of the competition every year, awarding the students their prizes. He similarly expressed his deep gratitude for the honour of having the Kalshoven-Gieskes Forum on International Humanitarian Law named after him by Leiden University. This forum’s goal, namely to enhance the protection of persons in times of armed conflict, by research and education, matches Frits’s endeavours perfectly.

In 2003, Frits was awarded the Henri Dunant Medal, the highest distinction of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, for his continued effort to improve the knowledge of and respect for the law of war and to his work in promoting the Fundamental Principles and ideals of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement; a moment that he truly cherished.

On the occasion of receiving that prize, at the end of 2003, he reflected on the wars of the 1990ies, 11 September 2001 and attacks such as those on the UN and ICRC Headquarters in Bagdad. He recalled that the 27th International Red Cross and Red Crescent Conference in 1999 had chosen as its motto “The power of humanity”, but that the vulnerability of humanity had since become painfully clear. He therefore ended his thank you words, with the wish that in spite of its vulnerability, humanity, as the most fundamental principle of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, would nonetheless prevail in the future.

In 2015, Frits was finally awarded the San Remo Prize for the Promotion, Dissemination and Teaching of International Humanitarian Law. The award was given within the framework of the 38th Round Table on “The Relationship between IAC and NIAC: Challenges for IHL?”, in recognition of his “outstanding and tireless commitment to International Humanitarian Law, as well as for his exceptional contribution to its development through his ever-active involvement with international humanitarian bodies and to its dissemination through his scholarly writings and teaching activities.”

In the preface to his collected works, he wrote in 2007: “I was educated in the civil law tradition, with a heavy accent on the written law and its history. […] [I]n my work on IHL the second half of the nineteenth century has come to figure as my starting-point. I have always been, and remain, convinced of the need to be aware of, and honour, the element of historical continuity in the “reaffirmation and development” of the laws of war.” With a career in IHL that spans more than half a century, he himself has become part of the history of IHL, being involved in the development through treaties and clarification through scholarship, always tirelessly striving to enhance the protection of victims of armed conflicts. It is therefore fitting that he completed his impressive publication record last year with a chapter on “The History of International Humanitarian Law Treaty-Making”.

Rest in peace, Frits.

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Bernard Dougherty says

September 12, 2017

Prof Kalshoven, I know, Frits as he insisted he be called, was a true scholar, teacher, and gentleman. I met him as a student in 2002. He treated me as though my opinion carried as much weight as his. Far, far from the truth.
It was a pleasure to know you.

Juan M. Amaya-Castro says

September 12, 2017

Professor Kalshoven had already retired when I was a student in Leiden, but I met him when, in the context of a human rights student organisation, I had invited the Colombian Ambassador to speak about human rights there. The Ambassador had to cancel at the last minute, and so we did not have the opportunity to warn others (the days before social media). When Professor Kalshoven showed up to the event, he expressed disappointment, but went on to tell me that he had gone a number of times to Colombia, to advise the various actors in the conflict there, and he offered to talk about it to the attending audience. I would later learn, through other sources, how he was a regular, if mostly discrete, presence in Colombia throughout the 1990s, at a time when the various governments were making more or less sincere or half-hearted ouvertures to the various armed opposition groups. International humanitarian law was at the time almost absent from public discourse, and there was an active opposition, by the army, to signing the Second Protocol. Even now, the radical right insists that there is a terrorism problem, rather than an internal conflict. It was a very complicated dynamic and even progressive forces were unsure about whether to pursue a strategy that would involve bringing in international rules and international organisations.

Throughout this period I had a number of encounters with Professor Kalshoven, and he would tell me about his meetings with generals, politicians, and armed opposition leaders. He had the advantage that he could speak to them as a military officer, from soldier to soldier, and with elegant directness and the kind clarity of a teacher, he would, again and again, insist on the importance of international humanitarian law. I am completely convinced that he was a crucial figure in the process that would lead to Colombia’s ratification of the Second Protocol, to the adopting by the Colombian military of its principles and standards, and even to the FARC and others becoming aware of their importance and value. It would take a long time, and there were many abuses on all sides in that period, but the ongoing peace process is unthinkable without the hard work and the difficult process of convincing people that took place in the 1990s.

I last met him in Leiden, about five years ago, at a conference. I was happy that he still remembered me, and he expressed an ongoing interest in what was going on in Colombia. A crusader for the right cause, a teacher of many, a gentleman until the very end. Colombia is a better place for it.