The Paris Convention of 1910: The path to internationalism


Air law began with a hot air balloon! On 21 November 1783, Frenchman Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier flew 9 km in 25 minutes over Paris. Paris police issued a directive prohibiting balloon flights without prior authorization.


Well before the beginning of the 20th century, aeronautical authorities had begun to meet internationally. The first diplomatic document concerning international aviation law dates back to the Franco-German War of 1870-71, in which balloons were used on both sides, especially during the siege of Paris. A letter dated 19 November 1870, addressed by Bismarck to the French government through the American ambassador Washbourne, declared that aeronauts overflying the territory occupied by the German troops would be treated as persons operating behind the battle lines.


In 1880, the Institut de Droit International (Institute of International Law), a private association of eminent jurists from many countries, included aviation on the agenda of its convention held in Oxford, England. The Comité juridique international de l’aviation, established in Paris in 1909, prepared a draft International Code of the Air (“Code de l’air”) through its national committees; the first congress of this new organization was held at Paris in 1911 and three other congresses were convoked previous to the Great War, at Paris in 1911, at Geneva in 1912 and at Frankfurt-am-Main in 1913. Unfortunately, this Code was not completed before World War I; this effort was not without its influence on the further development of aviation legislation. 


Called by a decree of the French Government and in connection with the Exposition universelle de Paris in 1889, the first International Congress of Aeronautics met at Paris from 31 July to 3 August 1889 with delegates from Brazil, France, Great Britain, Mexico, Russia and the United States; it was not, however, a conference of States since the delegates were not representative of their governments with plenipotentiary power. The delegates agreed to refer questions of complex nature to a Permanent International Aeronautics Commission, which, subsequently, held meetings at Paris (1900), Milan (1906), Nancy (1909), Turin (1911) and Ghent (1913). Moreover, another attempt of jurists at codification was the International Juridical Congress for the Regulation of Air Locomotion held at Verona in 1910. Internationalism was in the winds.


A series of thirty-three peace congresses at almost annual intervals called Universal Peace Congress (Congrès universel de la paix), which were non-governmental meetings organized by a number of national and international peace societies, took place between 1889 and 1939, with the first of these took place during the Exposition universelle de Paris from 23 to 27 June 1889. At the first conference, these societies decided to unite under the name, “International Union of Peace Societies”. The Exposition universelle was a world's fair held in Paris, France, from 5 May to 31 October 1889; the most famous structure created for the Exposition, and still remaining, is the Eiffel Tower.


In fact, military interests in aviation appeared at a very early stage. The first International Peace Conference, at which 26 governments were represented, held at The Hague in the Oranjezaal -Orange Hall- of the Huis ten Bosch -House in the Wood- from 18 May to 29 July 1899 adopted "Declarations" to the effect to prohibit the discharge of projectiles and explosives from balloons or by other methods of similar nature; it applied only as a moratorium for a period of 5 years. The first International Peace Conference was convened on the initiative of the Czar of Russia, Nicholas II (1868-1918), with the object of seeking the most effective means of ensuring to all peoples the benefits of a real and lasting peace, and, above all, of limiting the progressive development of existing armaments. Queen Wilhelmina (1880-1962) of the Netherlands agreed to host the conference in the Huis ten Bosch, the royal residence in The Hague.

Although certain idealistic motives played roles, no progress was made on disarmament at the end of each day. Nevertheless, the Conference was not without important results: 1) it produced a convention for the Pacific Settlement of Disputes, which resulted in the establishment of the first international organization, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA); 2) an issue on Laws and Customs of War on Land known as "The Hague Convention", which remains as the most important source of humanitarian law today; 3) a third concerning Maritime Warfare.


The declaration of this first conference was not renewed, however, at the Second Hague Peace Conference held from 15 June to 18 October 1907; forty-four States were represented, including the principal nations of Europe, North and South America, and Asia. These Peace Conferences held at The Hague were the first truly international assemblies meeting in time of peace for the purpose of preserving peace, not of concluding a war then in progress. They marked an epoch in the history of international relations. A third conference was planned for 1914 and later rescheduled for 1915, but it did not take place because of the start of World War I. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 were among the first formal statements of the laws of war and war crimes in the body of secular international law.


The date of 17 December 1903 marked not only the first flight of the Wright brothers, but also the birth of international civil aviation, as we know it today. Already in the early years of aviation, people with foresight had realized that the advent of the airplane added a new dimension to transport, which could no longer be contained within strictly national confines. Not only was international flight of heavier-than-air vehicles rapidly emerging, but balloons and dirigibles also begun crossing sovereign domestic borders with increasing frequency.


In 1905, France had formed the very first aviation-related federation of any kind: the Fédération aéronautique internationale (FAI) which was established as a non-governmental and non-profit organization to promote aeronautical and astronautical activities worldwide, particularly in the field of air sports, as well as to encourage relating skills, proficiency and safety measures.


On 25 July 1909, Louis Blériot piloted his monoplane with a 25-horsepower engine (i.e., a Blériot XI) across the English Channel from Calais, France, to Dover, England; no legal steps had been taken to authorize this flight and its landing in a foreign country, and Blériot did not even carry any identification paper.


Minutes of meetings and annexes of the Paris Conference (1910)

In 1908, at least ten German balloons were alleged to have crossed the Franco-German border and landed on French soil carrying more than 26 aviators, the majority of those were German officers. Wishing to avoid international confrontation, the French government proposed that an international conference be convened with the purpose of devising regulatory procedures relating to flights into and over foreign territory. As a result, on the invitation of France, the first important conference on an international air law code was convened in Paris in 1910 (named International Air Navigation Conference, Conférence internationale de navigation aérienne, held from 18 May to 29 June at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs). The 1910 Paris International Air Navigation Conference represented the first diplomatic effort to formulate the principles of international law relating to air navigation and was a great historical importance.


Nineteen European States (Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, England, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey) attended this conference; nations from other continents were not invited, given the distances involved, the prospect of their aircraft operating in Europe was considered unrealistic.


Commissions were held on the following four subjects: law of nations; administrative and technical; customs; regulation of the aerial navigation. A number of basic principles governing aviation were laid down through the Projet d’une convention internationale relative à la navigation aérienne. This draft international convention relating to the aerial navigation comprised 7 chapters and 55 articles and three annexes: marks of nationality and registration; characteristics of the aircraft; rules of the air traffic.


The following seven chapters were planned: 1) Nationality of Aircraft and Registration Requirements; 2) Approval and Airworthiness Certificates; 3) authorization for Air Traffic within the Borders and above a National Territory; 4) Regulations on Take-off, Landing and Flight; 5) Customs and Freight; 6) Public Aircraft; 7) Final Provisions,


But the issue of equal treatment of all civil aircraft, whether national or foreign, within usable airspace was to become the obstacle beyond which the conference was unable to progress. Thus, the cause of failure of the conference was not, as generally supposed, the impossibility of reaching agreement as to the legal status of airspace; the real causes of breakdown were political. Those attending the Conference were divided between the concept of a freedom in the air (paralleling that of the sea) and the concept of a national sovereignty that extended into international airspace.


Therefore, this large diplomatic conference finished on an acknowledgement of failure, since no government took action on the ratification of the convention. States could not agree:

  1. whether airspace should be “open” to all (like the high seas) or whether States have sovereignty over airspace;
  2. whether there should be a right of innocent passage or need prior authorization.


In 1911, the British Parliament passed the Aerial Navigation Act, giving Britain the power to close British airspace, including parts of the English Channel, to all foreign aircraft, thus allowing the UK to prohibit air navigation of any area, including the coastline and adjacent territorial waters, for the sake of the defence or safety of the realm.


In 1913, an attempt by an International Committee of Aeronautic Law in Brussels, to resume the work of the Paris conference through the Belgian Government, was a failure. Thus, the problems of international aviation were left to bilateral agreement.


Clearly at that time, Europe was preparing for war and many European countries passed similar legislation. However, one must look beyond this draft convention with some uncompleted articles; in comparing its style and substance with the subsequently successful 1919 Paris Air Navigation Convention, the remarkable similarities in content, substance, and also in the precise wording of the articles and annexes stand out forcefully. Thus, the problems of international aviation were left to bilateral agreement.


During the war, in March 1916, the First Conference of Pan-American Aeronautics, held in Santiago of Chile, recommended to the countries of North and South America that consideration be given to the necessity to unify their aerial legislation, so as to formulate an international air code of laws on aeronautics. Matters to be covered were enumerated.  However, nothing happened before the end of the war and the drafting of the Paris Convention.


World War I interrupted diplomatic negotiations on civil aviation and demonstrated the destructive but also valuable power of aviation.. The tremendous development of military aviation, however, brought about a decisive change in governmental attitudes towards air transport and it became clear that aviation and control of airspace are closely linked to national security. Great Britain, which had been extremely hostile to an international convention in 1910, created a Civil Aerial Transport Committee in 1917 for the study of post-war civil aviation problems. Similar studies were carried out in France.


In 1917, an Inter-Allied Aviation Committee was established by France, Great Britain, Italy and the USA in order to coordinate aircraft fabrication, and to standardize airplanes, motors and other materials; this stressed the necessity of cooperation in post-war international aviation. It was generally agreed that international practice prior to 1919 clearly evidenced recognition of the principle of state sovereignty in the air.


Postcard showing the Delegates to the International Peace Conference at The Hague in 1899 standing in front of the Huis ten Bosch (House in the Wood). Blank message block to the right of the image.

The Huis ten Bosch was an occasional royal residence for Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.





International Peace Conference at The Hague in 1899 - Two postcards (front and back) showing Wilhelmina, Queen of the Netherlands (at the top), Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia (at the bottom), and the Huis ten Bosch.

Photo Credit to UNPI Special Auction 73.


19th Universal Peace Congress held in Geneva from 22 to 28 September 1912.


20th Universal Peace Congress held in The Hague from 18 to 23 August 1913.

Photo Credit to the Journal of the United Nations Philatelists, Vol. 47 #2 April 2023.


Liberia – 1980 – Maximum Card – Blériot flying over the Channel in July 1909.