ACCESSIBILITY AT UNOG A A A A The United Nations in the Heart of Europe

Organization and establishment

First Assembly 1920 First Session of the Council 1920
  • The founding of the League of Nations

In 1918, a little more than a hundred years after the foundation of the first peace societies in the United States and England (and with the support of both countries’ Leagues to Enforce Peace), the idea of a “League of Nations” took form with the pledge to prevent future wars. President Woodrow Wilson of the United States of America was one of its most powerful advocates, and in December of 1918, he chaired the Peace Conference in Paris.

President Wilson was made Chairman of the Committee established to formulate a list of “rules and regulations” for an international organization whose purpose was to preserve world peace through open diplomacy and global consensus. The resulting document was the draft of an agreement or “Covenant” between nations. Less than four months later, on 29 April 1919, the final version of the Covenant of the League of Nations was adopted, and it became Part I of the Treaty of Versailles.

In accordance with President Wilson’s ideals, the Covenant outlined the League of Nations’ three basic objectives: to ensure collective security, to assure functional cooperation, and to execute the mandates of peace treaties. However, the League of Nations could only begin to function, formally and officially, after the Peace Treaty of Versailles came into effect. Thus, the League of Nations was officially inaugurated on 10 January 1920.

The 32 original Members of the League of Nations were also Signatories of the Versailles Treaty. In addition, 13 additional States were invited to accede to the Covenant. The League of Nations was open to all other States, providing they fulfilled certain requirements. Those which had obtained a two-thirds majority of “yes” votes cast in the Assembly were admitted.

  • The Covenant of the League of Nations

The Covenant of the League of Nations consists of a short foreword or “Preamble” which introduces its three primary objectives; the 26 Articles which follow outline the means of carrying them out.

In general, Article 1 describes the conditions of membership, admission and withdrawal. Articles 2 to 5 specify the nature and power of the Assembly and the Council, the two main bodies of the Organization. Articles 6 to 7 discuss the appointment of a Secretary-General, the establishment of the League of Nations’ Secretariat at Geneva, and its budget. Articles 8 to 9 deal with the subject of disarmament and the League of Nations’ objective of reducing the number of arms to the lowest possible level through open discussion between Members. Articles 10 to 21 clarify the political and social mandates the newly formed international organization was expected to carry out, spelling out the obligations and rights of the Member States in order to promote international cooperation, and thus achieve international peace and collective security. Articles 22 to 23 detail the League of Nations’ intention of extending international relations in the fields of finance, trade, transport by land, sea and air as well as the promotion of health and the struggle against drugs, prostitution and slavery. Articles 24 to 25 deal with the transfer of already established agencies and the commitment to encourage and support the aims of the Red Cross. Finally, Article 26 explains how Members should proceed when amendments to the Covenant are deemed necessary.

  • The main bodies of the League of Nations

The League of Nations consisted of the Assembly and the Council (both assisted by the Permanent Secretariat), and the Permanent Court of International Justice. In September of each year, an Assembly of all the Member States met in Geneva. Each Member State had one vote and was permitted up to three delegates. Amongst other things, the Assembly dealt with such matters as the budget, the admission of new members, all matters affecting world peace, making amendments to the Covenant, and electing non-permanent members to the Council. Paul Hymans of Belgium acted as President of the First Assembly, and after the British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald attended the Assembly in 1924, other prime and foreign ministers followed suit. The Council was a coalition of the four permanent members: France, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Germany joined in 1926, but left in 1935. In September 1934, the Soviet Union entered the League of Nations. Up to 10 non-permanent Council members were elected by the Assembly for a three-year period. The most important task of the Council was to settle international disputes. It met three times a year and reported to the Assembly on its activities. Its first President was Lord Balfour, the Council’s British representative.

The Permanent Secretariat, appointed by the Secretary-General, was given the task of working out the methodology of international cooperation. The Secretariat was also responsible for the general administrative tasks of the League of Nations, in addition to the registration and publication of the Treaties ratified between Member States. The Permanent Court of International Justice, consisting of 11 judges and four deputy judges, was established in The Hague to “hear and determine any dispute of an international character which the parties thereto submit to it”.

  • Geneva, headquarters of the League of Nations

Brussels and Geneva were the two cities competing to become the seat of the new organization. The final decision in Geneva’s favour was influenced by President Wilson, who favoured it primarily because of Switzerland’s neutrality. He felt that if Germany ever did join the League of Nations, it would be a far more acceptable place because the painful memories associated with Belgium could be avoided.

In 1920, the preliminary office of the League of Nations moved from London to the Palais Wilson (formerly the Hôtel National) in Geneva. During the 1920s, the League of Nations also held its Council meetings and conferences in the Palais Wilson. The assemblies, however, were held in the Salle de la Réformation, and after 1930, in the Bâtiment Electoral in Geneva.

In March 1926, the Extraordinary Assembly decided to hold an international architectural competition for the design of the new buildings for the organization. Some 377 plans were submitted, and an international jury awarded nine first prizes of Sw F 12,000 each. Five architects, Nénot and Lefèvre (Paris), Flegenheimer (Geneva), Broggi (Rome) and Vágó (Budapest) were chosen to design the final plans.

On 7 September 1929, the foundation stone was laid in Ariana Park, which was given to the City of Geneva by Gustave Revilliod upon his death in 1890. When the League of Nations finally moved into its new home in 1936, the costs for the Palais des Nations had exceeded Sw F 29 million. John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s gift of US$ 2 million made the addition of a unique Library possible.