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About UNOG

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Political activities
  • International conflicts

  • The settlement of disputes

The League of Nations’ primary objective was to settle disputes by any means other than outright war. However, reaching this objective depended on the willingness of the sovereign States in question to cooperate with the League of Nations and to respect the maxims of the Covenant. By the time it folded, more than 60 international disputes had been brought before the League of Nations. During the first 10 years of its existence, only eight of the 30 disputants resorted to hostilities or war. Some of the peaceful settlements included:

1920: the Aaland Islands. After the Russian Revolution, Finland declared its independence and sovereignty over these Islands. However, its Swedish-speaking population claimed it had the right to vote for Swedish governance. Before it could develop into an armed conflict, both parties accepted the solution offered by the League of Nations. Though autonomy under Finnish rule was continued, important guarantees were granted to the Aaland Islands, and demilitarization under League of Nations observance was carried out.

1922: Vilna. Both Lithuania and Poland were claiming sovereignty over Vilna, and in 1922, the League of Nations was called in. Despite the Council’s recommendation that the city be placed under Lithuanian rule however, the disputing States were unable to reach an agreement acceptable to all. Consequently, when the Conference of Ambassadors redefined the Polish border in 1923, Vilna became part of Poland.

1923: Memel. After the First World War, this previously Baltic port on the Eastern frontiers of Germany was taken over by the Allies under a provisional administration responsible to the League of Nations’ Conference of Ambassadors. After a coup d’état, the port was under Lithuanian sovereignty. Special privileges were granted to the mostly German population as well as to Poland, which received the right to use the port for transit and trade.

  • The Greco-Bulgarian conflict (1925) and Leticia (1932)

There existed in the Covenant a provision that empowered the League of Nations to take action and even impose sanctions (within specific guidelines) in order to settle international disputes brought before the Council by any one of its Member States.

One such case arose when, in 1925, a border conflict broke out between Greece and Bulgaria that threatened to escalate into an all-out war in the Balkans. The Bulgarian Government appealed at once to the League of Nations (under Article 10 of the Covenant) and an Extraordinary Session of the Council was called, and subsequently held in Paris. Aristide Briand, the representative of France, acted as Chairman. Under the observation of the British, French and Italian military attachés, the hostilities ceased and the evacuation of the territory occupied by Greek forces was carried out without incident. This conflict is but one of the few in which the system as outlined in the Covenant was successful; a conflict was identified, the Council met without delay, a fair hearing was given, and a general agreement arrived at for maintaining the peace and providing justice for all concerned.

A more complicated example of an international dispute requiring the League of Nations’ assistance was that which took place between Colombia and Peru over Leticia, a remote border district in the Upper Amazon valley. After several attempts to solve the problem on a regional level, the Peruvian and Colombian delegates finally turned to the League of Nations for assistance in 1933. However, it was only after Luis Sanchez Cerro, the Peruvian president, was assassinated that an agreement could be reached. After the ownership of the Letician territory was transferred to an International Commission for one year, it was returned to Colombia.

  • China: the Manchurian crisis of 1932

On 19 September 1931, the League of Nations was made aware of an incident provoked by anti-Japanese activists at the Japanese-owned South Manchurian railway line in China. Consequently, the Japanese army invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria. China immediately appealed to the world’s powers for their intervention. Under the chairmanship of Aristide Briand, and with the active participation of the United States of America (which had thus far refrained from recognizing the League of Nations as a global mediator), the Council attempted to negotiate a peaceful solution. However, neither the Council nor the Assembly were able to agree on the imposition of sanctions of any kind, which in accordance with the Covenant, could have been used against any Member State that had violated the principles of the League of Nations.

Four months after the initial outbreak of hostilities, the Council dispatched an Inquiry Commission to China under the leadership of the British diplomat, the Earl of Lytton. By the time the so-called Lytton Commission finally arrived in China in April of 1932, the Japanese Army had already installed the Manchurian State of Manchukuo. In order to determine the source of the conflict and to come up with possible measures to restore the peace between China and Japan, the Commission began its investigations with the assistance of George Moss, a member of the British Consular Service who was also fluent in Chinese.

On the advice of the Lytton Report (September 1932), the League of Nations refused to recognize Manchukuo as a genuine State and proposed a series of measures to re-establish the status quo. While China accepted the League of Nations’ recommendations for restoring peace in the area, Japan did not and, as a result, withdrew from the League of Nations in 1935.

  • Ethiopia (Abyssinia)

In 1933, the Fascist Government of Benito Mussolini planned its attack on Ethiopia with the intention to expand the colonial territory of Italy, despite the fact that in 1928 it had signed the Italo-Ethiopian Treaty of Friendship, Conciliation and Arbitration. In December of 1934, a clash occurred between the armed forces of the two States at Walwal on the Ethiopian side of the frontier with Italian Somaliland. Mussolini declared the incident “an act of self-defence” and, therefore, not subject to arbitration. Compensation was demanded in addition to formal recognition of the area as Italian.

When this was refused by Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie, the case was taken as a casus belli by Italy. As a Member of the League of Nations, Ethiopia brought the case before the Council, but in order to continue his pursuit of expansion, Mussolini ignored all League of Nations proposals in order to continue to mobilize his military forces in the northern Ethiopian state of Eritrea.

Rounds of talks in Geneva proved futile, a clear indication that the Council was unable to protect a small Member State from the interests of a larger and more influential one and, as a result, oil sanctions that would have halted Mussolini’s military endeavours were not imposed. Thus, armed with a deadly combination of superior weaponry and poison gas, Italy was able to launch an attack on Ethiopia in December of 1935.

Once Addis Ababa fell in May of 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie, who was in Geneva at the time, went to the Assembly and again asked the League of Nations for help, but to no avail, as Italy’s conquest had been formally recognized by most countries. However, Mussolini’s declaration of war on France and the United Kingdom provoked the latter into facilitating the Emperor’s recapture of his country, and by 1941, the Ethiopian Government was back in power and Ethiopia became an independent State.

  • International reconciliation and disarmament
  • The 1925 Locarno Pact

In 1924, with Gustav Stresemann becoming head of Germany’s Foreign Office, a more liberal foreign policy was ready to consider cooperating with the League of Nations rather than viewing the new organization as an instrument set up to suppress Germany. Thus, in December of 1924, Stresemann dispatched an application for Germany’s admission to the Council in which he requested (among other things) a seat on the Council and special treatment concerning hostile actions to be taken against any Covenant-breaking State. Because of the latter request, admission was denied.

In early 1925, Stresemann made a second attempt. Even though the Geneva Protocol was not yet in force, its principles of “security” made the follow-up application possible. Stresemann proposed to the British and French Foreign Offices his guarantee of Germany’s intent to respect the Treaty of Versailles. After the exchange of Stresemann’s proposals between London, Paris and Berlin, Sir Austen Chamberlain and Aristide Briand invited Member States to a common meeting in Locarno, Switzerland.

Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Poland were also invited to join the meeting. The negotiations held in October of 1925 resulted in the Locarno Pact, signed by Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. In addition, four arbitration conventions were signed between Germany and the following States: Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France and Poland. Thus, Locarno prepared the ground for reconciliation between Germany and her neighbours Belgium and France, and for Germany’s eventual entry into the League of Nations in 1926. However, in 1933, shortly after Nazism took control of the country, Germany withdrew her membership from the League of Nations.

  • Briand’s plan for a European Union

The original idea of a “United States of Europe” can be traced back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; however, it was Aristide Briand who revitalized the concept at the end of the 1920s.

Briand and those in favour of a “European Union” believed that its realization depended on the establishment of new institutions which would cooperate with those of the League of Nations, yet would be independent of them in all essential aspects. Upon further discussion, it was decided that the creation of such a union should occur entirely within the framework of the League of Nations. During the 1929 Assembly, Briand promised the 27 invited European Member States that he would submit a more detailed plan that they could then discuss.

While other Members waited without further commitment for Briand’s plan to evolve, Stresemann supported Briand’s plan and spoke out on the need for European stamps, a European Customs Union, and a European coinage in order to remain economically competitive with forces outside Europe.

By the time Briand’s proposal was ready for discussion in May of 1930, Stresemann had died and Europe was in the process of undergoing some drastic changes in the form of growing levels of unemployment and nationalism. However, Briand’s proposal was brought before the 1931 Assembly and it was agreed to go ahead with plans to establish a Commission of Inquiry for European Union. Briand was elected as Chairman and Sir Eric Drummond as Secretary.

The practical activities of the Commission of Inquiry merged with the general work of the League of Nations for the purpose of economic cooperation. In addition, the Commission was a catalyst in bringing the Soviet Union and Turkey into closer cooperation with the League of Nations after inviting the two States to join the Commission.

  • The Geneva Protocol and the Disarmament Conference of 1932

Disarmament was one of the most important questions to be considered by the League of Nations. The condition, however, was that Germany would agree to the Treaty of Versailles and would be the first country to reduce its arms in accordance with the Treaty.

The Advisory Commission and the Temporary Mixed Commission (later replaced by a so-called “Coordination Commission”) were bodies entrusted with the creation of a plan for disarmament. The issue was discussed in each Assembly and in many sessions of the Council and other special meetings, but all these efforts failed in the end.

One of the main obstacles faced was the belief of the main Powers that their security depended on maintaining a level of armaments equal or even superior to those of their neighbours. They also preferred to determine their own needs in armaments. Another problem was that the Soviet Union and the United States of America not being members of the League of Nations, did not take part in the process until 1932.

Thus, the 1922 Draft Treaty of Mutual Guarantees and the 1923 Treaty of Mutual Assistance, piloted by Lord Cecil with the close cooperation of Edouard Benes and the French delegation, were not accepted in the Assemblies.

The new more liberal Governments in France under Edouard Herriot and in the United Kingdom under Ramsay MacDonald brought a new spirit to the disarmament negotiations and as a result the fifth Assembly adopted the Geneva Protocol on the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, in October 1924, proposing the general disarmament of all nations linked with compulsory arbitration and security guarantees. It also pledged that a general Disarmament Conference would be convened shortly. This Conference eventually convened in 1932 and lasted, with a short interruption, for two and a half years.

Despite numerous petitions and public demand for disarmament, the countries were not ready to sacrifice their security. Thus, the Conference was a failure.

  • The protection of minorities

After the war, the new Eastern European States of Austria, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia were forced to sign agreements granting religious, social and political equality to their minorities, whether or not they had been defeated. In order to supervise these agreements, the League of Nations set up the Minority Section, whose influential programmes were rather unique at that time. Its responsibilities included screening the incoming petitions, requesting responses from the accused States, forwarding cases to the ad hoc “Committee of Three”, and/or investigating matters on its own. If the case appeared before the Committee, a decision had to be made as to whether or not the Council’s involvement was warranted.

In the beginning, the reports were unofficial; however, after 1929, the Council decided that the reports were to be published in the League of Nations’ Official Journal.

Between 1920 and 1939, 883 petitions were submitted to the Minorities Section. Only 16 of the 395 petitions deemed “receivable” ever reached the attention of the Council, and of these 16, the Council very reluctantly condemned the accused State of improper treatment in only four cases.

Due to the efforts of Erik Colban, the first director of the Minority Section, a more personal approach was developed. The Section officials would investigate matters locally and pursue their findings. This close cooperation between the Section and the accused States made it possible in many cases to avoid further aggravation and alleviate future problems.

  • The Mandate system

As a result of the war, the Allied and associated Powers acquired the territories that were previously under the sovereignty of Germany and the Ottoman Empire. As their inhabitants were at this time considered incapable of ruling themselves, the Peace Conference of 1919 decided that they should be ruled by mandate, whereby powers were conferred upon a State chosen by the League of Nations to govern a region elsewhere in order “to secure the well-being and development of the peoples who inhabited the territories in question”. Belgium, the British Empire, and France were entrusted with the governance of the mandated territories.

In accordance with the Covenant, annual reports concerning these regions were to be submitted to the League of Nations’ Permanent Mandate Commission, established in February of 1921. It was on the basis of these reports that the Commission advised the Council as to whether or not the conditions of each mandate were being strictly observed.

The members of the Commission were nominated by the Council, and because of the need for impartiality, it was preferred that they come from non-mandated Powers. As a result, the Commission was trusted and often consulted by both mandated and non-mandated Powers during its last years. Three categories of mandates, “A”, “B” and “C”, were applied “according to the stage of the development of the people, the geographical situation of the territory, its economic conditions and other similar circumstances” (Article 22, paragraph 3).

Under the United Nations, the work of the Mandates Commission continued through the Trusteeship Council, though it was no longer composed of non-governmental representatives. However, as the previously mandated countries have become officially recognized as sovereign and independent States, its responsibilities have steadily diminished.

  • The Saar and the Free City of Danzig

One of the unique responsibilities assigned to the League of Nations by the Treaty of Versailles was the supervision of the former German border territories of the Saar basin and the Free City of Danzig. As stated in the 1920 Treaty, the Territory of the Saar basin was to be placed under the administration of the League of Nations for 15 years. During that time, the Saar was to be isolated from the rest of Germany, and as compensation for the war, France was given control of its coal mines.

The administration of the Saar was entrusted to a Governing Commission consisting of five members chosen by the Council of the League of Nations: one representative of France, one native German inhabitant of the Saar, and three representatives of countries other than France and Germany. On 13 January 1935, the inhabitants of the Saar determined their sovereignty by plebiscite. On that day, order was guaranteed by an International Police Force composed of British, Dutch Italian, and Swedish soldiers. Over 90 per cent of the votes cast called for the immediate reintegration of the Saar into Germany. This decision took effect on 1 March 1935.

The inhabitants of the Free City of Danzig and the territory surrounding it were primarily of German nationality. However, Poland needed to have access to the sea. In accordance with the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations established a High Commission to oversee this district. Danzig was to be self-governing, though under the League of Nations’ protection. Poland, however, was to govern the City’s foreign affairs and maintain certain transit, postal and harbour rights. The High Commissioner appointed by the Council was to reside in Danzig and make the final decision in cases when mutual agreement between disputants could not be reached.

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