After spending more than a century on the fringes of international legal discourse, international commissions of inquiry have recently begun to feature more prominently in academic and political debate. Their embrace of international criminal law has prompted a debate whether they are stepping outside their traditional mandate as fact-finding bodies. As this article will show, this dispute misunderstands the Hague tradition and ignores the historical role of early commissions of inquiry in shaping our ideas of holding perpetrators of mass atrocities to account, or of letting international bodies decide the responsibility and guilt of individuals involved in controversial incidents. While being almost completely unknown today, the North Sea Incident Commission of 1905 had explicit authority to decide upon the responsibility, blame and punishment for an incident in which the Russian Navy had killed and injured British fishermen while engaged in operations linked to the Russo-Japanese war. It pioneered an adversarial type of a commission of inquiry that could serve as a useful model for an investigation into the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 since it meets all Russian objections against the SC draft vetoed in July 2015.


Jan Lemnitzer is a postdoctoral researcher in history, and works as a lecturer at Pembroke College. He was the previous Director of Studies for the major faculty research project, the Changing Character of War.

His research specialism is the history of the laws of warfare, in particular maritime warfare in the 19th century. He obtained his PhD from the LondonSchool of Economics for a study of the 1856 Declaration of Paris (to be published with Palgrave Macmillan). It won the prize for the best thesis in international history in 2010 by the British International History Group.His post-doctoral project, titled ‘Why is killing civilians bad? The history of a modern debate, 1848-1915′ looks at how and why the bombardment of civilians was banned by an international norm. For this project, Dr Lemnitzer was awarded a Pearsall fellowship in Naval and Maritime history by the Institute of Historical Research in 2009/10.

Dr Lemnitzer has recently published an article entitled That Moral League of Nations against the United States: The Origins of the 1856 Declaration of Paris in the International History Review. It explains the origins of the multi-lateral lawmaking treaty, the main instrument we use today to create new international law.