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The world when the IPU began

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Frédéric Passy, French MP and William Randal Cremer, British MP.

The Inter-Parliamentary Conference for International Arbitration – later called the Inter‑Parliamentary Union – was officially born on 30 June 1889. Its foundation was driven by two remarkable parliamentarians – William Randal Cremer, a British MP and Frédéric Passy, a French MP – who were driven by a passion for international mediation as a means to resolve conflict. It was against a background of challenging international conflicts that demanded a platform for dialogue that the British and French founders created the organization to provide a place for countries to negotiate and arbitrate, instead of clash and conflict.

No mechanism of international arbitration

The world of the late nineteenth century was one of complex international geopolitics and was filled with turbulence. Prior to 1889 the world had few established means for countries to work together across borders. Without a process for dialogue, disagreements between countries quickly escalated into conflict.

In the 1870s and 1880s, even though the idea of bringing together MPs from different parts of the world as a means to arbitrate had been gaining ground among pacifists in Britain and France – the two countries often in conflict at the time –  no one had seized the initiative to turn the idea into a reality.

It was while working to strike an arbitration treaty between Great Britain and the United States that Cremer and his delegation of MPs visited the US. Although the US Congress did not approve the treaty in the end, the event gave  momentum to the shift in favour of cross‑border mediation and arbitration. In June 1888 the US Senate adopted a proposal to enter into arbitration over disputes with other governments whenever possible.

It was this movement that brought a sense of urgency to the notion of international arbitration, in particular between Britain, France and the USA, driven in no small part by the naval strength of these countries. 

Heightened risk of conflict

At the time, the European powers had colonial empires that spanned all five continents. European colonial expansion exacerbated the potential for conflict within and between territories and heightened the possibility of war. Concurrently, the Russians were busy investing in new ships to expand their Pacific frontier. And the relative newcomer, the United States, was also expanding its influence in the Pacific.

The intensity of the naval jousting spurred the Parliament of the United Kingdom in 1889 to sign the Naval Defence Act into law. The Act formally adopted a “two-power standard” to increase the country’s naval strength. The standard called for the Royal Navy to maintain a number of battleships at least equal to the combined strength of the next two largest navies in the world, which then were France and Russia. Not only pacifists foresaw the eventual result – that of supercharging a global arms race.

A better way forward

This constant risk of war called for a better way to resolve conflict, but it still took the considerable vision and commitment of the two remarkable parliamentary leaders to make it happen. It was through their efforts, that the IPU’s first convening held on 30 June 1889 in Paris was attended by 55 French and 28 British MPs, as well as 5 Italian MPs and 1 representative each from the parliaments of Belgium, Denmark, Hungary, Liberia, Spain and the United States.