Alabama and the Alabama Room: A Necessary Reminder of Successful Arbitration

As the war rages on between Russia and Ukraine, with no end in sight and no public negotiation between the two sides, it should be noted that September 14, 2022 marks the 150e anniversary of a successful third-party arbitration between Britain and the United States. The very act of agreeing to arbitration by both parties in 1871 accelerated the custom of settling disputes between countries through arbitration rather than resorting to violence and war.

When Americans think of Alabama, they often think of a Southern state that was notorious in the 1960s and 1970s for its civil rights battles. Among the most memorable, Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands of protesters on a five-day march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery in March 1965 to promote the civil and political rights of American blacks. A previous march had ended with tear gas and attacks with batons and whippings by local police. More than 50 walkers were hospitalized.

If Americans think of Alabama as a Southern state, when public international lawyers and members of the international Geneva community think of Alabamathey think about Alabama Hall of the Hôtel de Ville in Geneva where the first third-party arbitrator took place after the American Civil War. The room was also the place where the Geneva Convention was signed in 1864, the founding act of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

During the American Civil War, the British had an ambiguous position towards the conflict. While officially neutral, they continued to supply material to the Confederacy through Caribbean ports and to receive valuable cotton in return.

But the South needed more than materiel and also ordered ships from England, a clear breach of its obligations of neutrality. One of the ships ordered, later christened the Alabamalaid in the French port of Cherbourg in 1864 for repairs at the same time as the cruiser Federal Kearsarge positioned itself outside the harbour. A brief naval battle ensued and caused extensive damage to the British-made vessel.

At the end of the Civil War, efforts were made by the United States to try to compensate for the losses suffered during the war by forcing Great Britain to pay the damages. In 1871 the Treaty of Washington was signed by both parties which established an arbitration tribunal in Geneva in neutral Switzerland. Britain has also officially expressed its regret for Alabama and other ships that had violated its neutrality.

Before five arbitrators, three neutrals and representatives of both sides, the United States demanded compensation for breaches of neutrality by British-built ships such as the Alabama. The arbitrators’ final decision was that Great Britain, the great power at the time, would pay the United States $15,500,000, which it did.

A semi-official history of the Arbitration relates: “On the evening of September 7…the Government of the Republic and Canton of Geneva gave a gala dinner to the members of the Tribunal…Four days later, the Swiss federal authorities in turn gave a reception for the Tribunal… The next day, they were taken on an excursion to Interlaken and were treated to an official dinner in Bern, in the presence of the diplomatic corps. The fact that the two parties are arguing over arbitration does not detract from the spirit of civility.

The Alabama decision set several precedents for neutrality. More importantly, it set a precedent for how disputes between countries could be settled. Following the Alabama decision, a Permanent Court of Arbitration was created by the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, which was followed by the Permanent Court of International Justice and the present International Court of Justice. If both parties agree, third-party arbitration has become a common way to settle disputes between countries.

An excellent example of how arbitration can work between often warring countries, and which also took place in the Alabama Room, was the Taba affair between Israel and Egypt. Despite obvious tensions between the two countries, they agreed to arbitration on a piece of land.

The dispute centered on a small area of ​​the Sinai Peninsula known as Taba, which consisted of a 5-star hotel and a resort on the shore of the Gulf of Aqaba. The 1988 decision was awarded to Egypt, which had considerable psychological benefits for the winning team as well as increased international prestige.

The press reported that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak viewed the Taba dispute and resolution as a model of cooperation between Israel and countries in the region, especially Jordan. “World peace will never be an impossible goal. This is the noble goal that can be achieved,” Mubarak said as he raised the black, red and white Egyptian flag over Taba in a high-profile ceremony as Egypt took control of the region.

The importance of Taba as an example of dispute resolution should not be underestimated. Media from both sides were omnipresent in Geneva at the time, as if Israel and Egypt were vying for the Champions League football title. The peaceful settlement and acceptance of Israel has also been the subject of international reports. Israel received $37 million in compensation for the main hotel in Taba.

(I was working for the Associated Press in Geneva in 1988 and was inundated with requests from outside media to explain the rather convoluted and legalistic decision on the border issue.)

The story of the Alabama arbitration, such as the Taba case, are examples of how disputes between countries can be settled. Although Britain and the United States are not at war, it is a trade dispute, the 150e anniversary of the Alabama decision is a reminder of the potential of arbitration. A prominent jurist noted of the case: “Britain, to its credit, accepted what amounted to a ruling on the positive legal consequences implicit in a proclamation of neutrality. In doing so, he allowed the Alabama Arbitration not only to reaffirm the principles of International Law, but also, while defining the responsibilities of the Sovereign State, to make them effective. It’s a very good reason to celebrate the Alabama Arbitration, if only because it makes it possible to find a peaceful solution to problems which otherwise could only be solved by war.

Is anyone listening in Moscow or Kyiv?

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