Henri Marie La Fontaine (April 22, 1854-May 14, 1943) was born in Brussels. A professor of international law, a senator in the Belgian legislature for thirty-six years, a renowned bibliographer, a man of wide-ranging cultural achievements, he was noted, most of all, for his fervent and total internationalism.

In 1877 at the age of twenty-three, La Fontaine registered as counsel with the Brussels Court of Appeal after reading law at the Free University of Brussels, from which he later received a doctorate in law. For the next sixteen years, he practiced law, becoming one of Belgium’s leading jurists.

His interest in reform eventually led him into politics. A socialist, La Fontaine wrote for the movement, spoke at meetings, joined in founding La Justice, a socialist paper. Elected to the Belgian Senate as a Socialist, he represented Hainaut from 1895 to 1898, Liège from 1900 to 1932, and Brabant from 1935 to 1936. He was secretary of the Senate for thirteen years (1907-1919) and a vice-president for fourteen years: third vice-president (1919-1921), second vice-president (1921-1922), and first vice-president (1923-1932).

Throughout his career in the Senate he showed an abiding interest in education, labor, and foreign affairs. As a freshman senator, he introduced a bill to reform primary education and in his last year in the Senate spoke on the budget for public instruction. In labor legislation, he submitted a bill on mine inspection in 1897 and in 1926 supported the adoption of the eight-hour day and forty-hour week. In foreign affairs, he spoke almost every year on the foreign affairs budget, asked the Belgian government to demand arbitration between the combatants of the Boer War (1901), introduced a bill approving the treaty of obligatory arbitration with Italy (1911), and gave his legislative support to the League of Nations, the establishment of an economic union with Luxembourg, the Locarno Pacts, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, disarmament, and the legal means of settling international disputes.

La Fontaine was a member of the Belgian delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and a delegate to the First Assembly of the League of Nations in 1920-1921. To those deliberations he brought his uncompromising internationalism. For example, during a plenary meeting that was considering Article 16 of the Covenant he spoke against an amendment releasing from commitment those countries which deemed themselves endangered should they take part in sanctions, saying: «Belgium thinks that however great the peril which a country might have to undergo under the system which we seek to establish here, that country ought to do its duty. It was thus that Belgium understood her obligations in 1914… We fully admit that, in circumstances of this nature, powerful countries may take certain measures, but in our opinion it would be impossible, on the pretext that they would suffer more than others, for some countries to hold aloof from the sacred task of defending justice, even at the peril of their own existence. ‹Fais ce que dois, advienne que pourra.› » 

Ideas for some of the auxiliary bodies of the League of Nations and of such affiliated bodies as the Institute of Intellectual Cooperation may have been influenced by La Fontaine’s plan for an international intellectual union, along with which he proposed the creation of international agencies that logically follow from the acceptance of the international idea – among them, a university, a library, a language, a parliament, a court, a bank, and clearing houses for labor, trade, immigration, and statistical information.

La Fontaine entered the organized peace movement when Hodgson Pratt, the British pacifist, came to Belgium in the early 1880’s to establish a branch of his International Arbitration and Peace Association. Becoming the secretary-general of the Société belge de l’arbitrage et de la paix in 1889, La Fontaine thereafter participated actively in virtually all of the peace congresses held in the next twenty-five years. In 1907, he succeeded Fredrik Bajer (one of the two Nobel Peace laureates for 1908) as president of the International Peace Bureau (winner of the 1910 Peace Prize), an organization he helped to found and whose titular head he remained until his death.

La Fontaine became a member of the Interparliamentary Union as soon as he attained eligibility by virtue of being elected to a national legislature. To La Fontaine the Union was an embryo world parliament, the precursor of a world government. An enthusiastic member, he was chairman of its Juridical Committee prior to World War I and a member of two of its important commissions – that on preparation of a model world parliament and that on drafting a model treaty of arbitration.

In the two decades between 1894 and 1915, La Fontaine’s literary efforts were prodigious, with much of his more important work associated with internationalism. The Manuel des lois de la paix: Code de l’arbritrage (1894) was approved by the International Peace Congress held at Antwerp. Published in 1902, the immense volume, Pasicrisie internationale: Histoire documentaire des arbitrages internationaux, 1794-1900, is a source book of 368 documents on arbitration, including agreements, rules of procedure, and case decisions, printed in whole or in part in their original languages. A complementary work, Histoire sommaire et chronologique des arbitrages internationaux, 1794-1900, provides commentary on Pasicrisie. His exhaustive and carefully edited Bibliographie de la paix et de l’arbitrage international, containing 2,222 entries, appeared in 1904. The Great Solution: Magnissima Charta (1916) offers a set of principles for organized international relations, not for a «World State» which he considered many years away, and sketches a «constitution» embodying the necessary institutions that would fit the times while preventing future wars. In «International Judicature» (1915) he outlines the essentials for a supreme court of the world. Not that he was very optimistic at this time. From Washington, D.C., where he lived following his flight to England and then to the United States after the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, he wrote in a private letter: «The peoples are not awake…[There are dangers] which will render a world organization impossible. I foresee the renewal of…the secret bargaining behind closed doors. Peoples will be as before, the sheep sent to the slaughterhouses or to the meadows as it pleases the shepherds. International institutions ought to be, as the national ones in democratic countries, established by the peoples and for the peoples.» 

In the period before World War I, La Fontaine inaugurated an ambitious bibliographical scheme. In 1895, in collaboration with Paul Otlet, he established the Institut international de bibliographie. This «House of Documentation», as it came to be called, was a vast informational retrieval scheme, in which he proposed to file, index, and provide information for retrieval on anything of note published anywhere in the world. With the help of a subsidy from the Belgian government, he went some distance in bringing his plan into reality, for the House developed a methodology of universal classification and produced some reference works, particularly bibliographies of social sciences and peace.

From the work of the Institute came the idea for the Union of International Associations, which he founded with Paul Otlet in 1907, and, as secretary-general, directed thereafter. Still located in Brussels, the Union was granted consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations in 1951 and with UNESCO in 1952. As the «only centre in the world devoted to documentation, research and promotion of international organizations, particularly the voluntary (nongovernmental) variety»4 and as the publisher of The Yearbook of International Organizations, the first of which appeared in 1909, and of a host of reference works of proceedings, documents, bibliographies, directories, and calendars of meetings of international organizations, it carries on in a sophisticated manner the embryonic conceptions of its founder.

Throughout his life La Fontaine was concerned with education. He occupied the chair of international law from 1893 to 1940, first at the Université Nouvelle, a branch of the Free University of Brussels, and then at the Institut des Hautes Études after the branch merged with the University following World War I. He taught courses on the elements of international law and on the evolution of the judicial structures of the world, and, as occasion required, offered courses of lectures on various subjects – among them, disarmament, the League of Nations, international misunderstandings, world federation, the law in relation to political and moral crises in the world.

A zealous reformer, La Fontaine was a leading spokesman for women’s rights. He was appointed secretary of a technical school for young women in 1878; he wrote La Femme et le barreau in 1901, taking an advanced position on the place of women in the legal profession; and for some time he was president of the Association for the Professional Education of Women.

La Fontaine’s talents and energy led him to explore many interests. A mountaineer, he wrote about climbing, compiled an international bibliography of «Alpinism», and served as president of the Club alpin belge. He translated portions of Wagner’s operas, published essays on American libraries and the status of American women, founded the review La Vie internationale, lectured to adult education classes on modern movements in the arts, served on the Brussels City Council from 1904 to 1908, and even, in his young manhood, produced a volume of poetry.

Henri La Fontaine lived to see his native Belgium invaded once again but not to see it liberated, for he died in 1943.

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