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Technical activities

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  • The financial reconstruction of Austria and Hungary

The Economic and Financial Section consisted primarily of an Economic Committee. It was founded at the Brussels Financial Conference of 1920 which was attended by 39 States concerned with the enormous task of analysing Europe’s post-war financial disorder, and of finding ways to overcome it. The members of the Committee were appointed not by their Governments but by the Council of the League of Nations, and most of the ensuing decisions and actions resulting in Europe’s financial reconstruction were based on its findings.

The Republic of Austria, with its seven million inhabitants, soon ran into serious economic and financial difficulty after its foundation in 1919. During the first three years of its existence, huge sums of public money intended for charitable purposes and other causes had accomplished nothing in the way of reconstructing the economy. In 1922, when Chancellor Seipel addressed the League of Nations to request assistance, a detailed programme was put in place to balance the Austrian budget within approximately two years, and the country was given a loan of £ stg. 26 million. In 1924, under the control of the League of Nations, the internal economy and the public financial system were reformed, and the budget was balanced without drawing upon the loan, which was subsequently used for reconstruction work. In 1926, League of Nations’ control was withdrawn.

When the case of the financial reconstruction of Hungary came up in 1923, it was dealt with in a similar fashion, with £ stg. 10 million being loaned to the country by the League of Nations. Jeremiah Smith, from the United States of America, was appointed Commissioner-General in Budapest, and within one year, months ahead of schedule, the Hungarian budget showed a credit balance. A sizeable loan was also given to Greece, a country with only four million inhabitants at that time, to cope with the influx of more than one million Greek refugees from Asia Minor. Similar help was granted under League of Nations auspices to Bulgaria, and to the City of Danzig.

  • The International Economic Conferences of 1927 and 1933

The Assembly’s First International Economic Conference was held in Geneva in May of 1927. It was attended by representatives of 50 countries, including the Soviet Union and the United States of America. The two main objectives of the Conference were: to reinforce international trade laws, and to halt the widespread practice of tariff increases. The final Convention was signed by 29 States, each of whom agreed to act collectively to carry out its recommendations.

Despite this Convention, however, States began reducing their imports and increasing their exports in their own interests due to the rise of economic nationalism all over the world. This caused a global economic crisis that increasingly threatened the stability of international relations and fostered the renewal of Franco-German and Franco-Italian tensions.

As a result of requests put forth by Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom, the League of Nations’ Economic and Financial Commission arranged for a Second Conference to be held in London in June 1933. Delegates from 64 countries assembled with two goals in mind, to stabilize international monetary standards, and to have prices rise at a steady and reasonable rate.

This Conference was a complete failure, as no State was prepared to voluntarily give up any of its own financial and economic strengths. The result was worldwide unemployment and collective insecurity. Thereafter, the Economic and Financial Section of the League of Nations decided to focus more on the cooperation of individuals rather than of States, and thus began to work more closely with the Health Organization, the International Labour Office, and the International Institute of Agriculture in Rome.

  • Transit, transport and communications

Even before the onset of the First World War, the necessity of instituting a unified communications and transit organization had already been established. Thus, the need for such an organization was reinforced in the Covenant, though with the provision that all the major organizations involved would maintain their own constitutions and thus a certain degree of autonomy. However, this was only fully implemented in the case of the Communications and Transit Organization, which consisted of the following: a General Conference, made up of representatives of all League of Nations Members; a Committee of 18 States, 14 of whom were elected by the Conference (though not necessarily from Members of the League of Nations) and four of whom were Permanent Members of the Council; and a Transit Section in the Secretariat, directed by Robert Haas of France. A number of subcommittees were set up to deal with such matters as rail transport, inland navigation, ports and maritime navigation, road traffic and power transmission.

The Communications and Transit Organization held major Conferences in Barcelona, Spain (1921) and Geneva (1923) in order to conclude the Conventions on the International Regime of Maritime Ports and Railways. The purpose of the 1930 Lisbon Conference was to reach agreements on the unification of maritime signals; in 1931, a Convention on the Unification of Road Signals was drawn up.

Other agreements concerned the simplification of passport and visa procedures, the regulation of the passage of commercial and touring motorcars, international road traffic and the transmission of electric power across national frontiers. In addition, the organization provided practical expert advice to individual States such as China, and worked on reforming the calendar.

The work of the Communications and Transit Organization has been continued by the Transport and Communications Commission of the United Nations under the authority of the Economic and Social Council.

  • Social questions: the traffic in women and the protection of children

In 1904 and 1910, several agreements intended to protect the rights of women and children were put in place by a number of States. As a result, Article 23 of the Covenant entrusted the League of Nations with supervising the execution of these agreements, and in 1921, an International Conference held in Geneva drew up a Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children that was ratified by 48 States. The Assembly launched two extensive enquiries in order to assemble data for the campaign against such traffic in both the East and the West.

In February of 1937, a Conference of Central Authorities of Eastern countries was held at Bandung, Java. Several committees succeeded in discussing and improving some conditions. For example, in a number of countries, the age of marriage and consent was legally raised and licensed brothels were abolished. The rights of illegitimate children were also discussed. In addition, 50 countries accepted the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1924), which dealt with issues such as the placement of children in families, the support of blind children, and the effects of economic depression and unemployment on children and young people.

In 1934, the Assembly established an Information Centre for questions regarding child welfare. The Centre collected and classified as much information as possible on this subject. All printed material was collected and housed in the League of Nations’ Library. After 1940, the committees dealt with post-war societal problems.

  • The Health Organisation

Established in Paris in 1908, the International Health Office collected and distributed information from various health departments around the world, though it had no authority to act on its own. In 1922, and in accordance with Article 23 of the Covenant (concerning the prevention and control of disease), the League of Nations’ Health Committee and Health Section were established. However, these bodies were not associated with the Paris International Health Office because of disagreements that existed primarily between the United States of America and some Member States.

Under the leadership of Dr. Ludwig Rajchman, Secretary of the newly established Health Committee and Director of the Health Section, a health programme was initiated with the participation of non-member States such as Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States of America.

In addition to its information service, the Health Section acted as a link between national health administrations in many ways. For example, it extended its support to governments through the promotion of technical assistance, and it advised the Assembly and the Health Council on all international public health questions. For these reasons it is considered one of the most successful auxiliary organizations of the League of Nations. As a result of the 1922 Warsaw Health Conference, plans were set up to control the spread of epidemic diseases in Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean countries, the Far East, and the Soviet Union. Soon after, an Eastern Bureau of Epidemiological Information was established in Singapore, a State Serum Institute was set up in Copenhagen, and a National Institute for Medical Research was installed in London. Through these institutions, several vaccines (for diphtheria, tetanus and tuberculosis for example) were standardized worldwide.

After the demise of the League of Nations, the Health Organisation became the World Health Organization (WHO), based in Geneva.

  • Opium and dangerous drugs

The first global attempt to control the traffic in opium and other deadly habit-forming drugs (such as morphine, heroin and cocaine) occurred via The Hague Convention, signed by 42 nations in 1912. The signatory States agreed to allow only such drugs coming into their countries which were considered necessary for medicinal and scientific purposes. However, before this Convention could be implemented, the First World War broke out.

After the war, the League of Nations was entrusted with reactivating The Hague Convention of 1912, and an Opium Advisory Committee was appointed by the Council with the task of convincing States to re-adhere to its edicts. However, it became evident that in order to prevent the illicit smuggling of drugs, drug manufacture and production had to be controlled at the source. Thus, in 1924 and 1925, the League of Nations organized two Opium Conferences to deal with this issue. The Convention of the First Conference strengthened the original Convention of 1912; the second Conference added practical control measures to be implemented regarding the production and manufacture of narcotic substances.

The 1931 Convention proposed a strict regulation of narcotic drugs to be used by the world’s medical and scientific communities, though it did not indicate the need to limit and control the cultivation of the opium-producing poppy flowers; this was still under discussion when the Second World War broke out in 1939. Despite this setback (and its eventual demise), the League of Nations’ “war against drugs” did not fail. Responsibility was transferred to the United Nations, whose Advisory Committee continues to deal with this issue through its Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

  • Intellectual cooperation

The League of Nations was concerned not only with the exchange of political ideals and material goods, but also with the study of strategies that could reinforce intellectual relations between States. Therefore, in 1922, the Council set up one of its last permanent organizations, the Intellectual Cooperation Committee (ICC). Its purpose was to improve the working conditions of the educated workforce and to build up international relations between teachers, artists, scientists and members of other intellectual professions; national committees were to support their efforts.

The Committee had 12 original members, but eventually this grew to 15, and was made up of some of the foremost intellectual personalities of the time, including Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Béla Bartók and Thomas Mann. The ICC submitted a modest proposal of its plans in the early 1920s, but the Assembly refused to supply it with a budget that would allow it to remain in Geneva. Thanks to an offer from France, the Committee was able to re-establish itself in Paris in 1926 as the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation (IIIC). Its first director, M. Bergson, was followed by Henri Bonnet in 1930. By 1939, more than 40 such organizations acted as links between the IIIC and the various scientific and cultural institutions around the world; their proposals and opinions were exchanged in a number of conferences.

In Rome, the International Educational Cinematographic Institute (IECI) was created by the Italian Government. It worked closely with the IIIC in Paris, and seven out of 14 of its governing body members belonged to the IIIC as well.

  • The repatriation of prisoners of war and the problem of refugees

In April of 1920, there were approximately 500,000 prisoners of war (primarily in Russia) awaiting repatriation under miserable conditions. The Council of the League of Nations appointed Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian explorer and statesman, to investigate the situation and report back with his findings. Nansen, however, took initiative and organized the repatriation of the prisoners on his own. In less than two years, and despite a very limited budget, he and his assistants succeeded in sending home more than 427,000 prisoners of war from 26 countries at an average cost of only one pound sterling each.

At the same time, a similarly grave situation was arising. As a result of the 1917 Revolution, there were more than 1.5 million Russian refugees scattered all over Europe. These refugees had neither the right to claim any nationality nor the financial means to improve their situation. In 1921, the League of Nations set up a Refugee Organization in order to deal with this problem, and Nansen was offered the post of High Commissioner, which he accepted.

After the situation of the Russian refugees had been settled, Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek refugees from Turkey were requesting help from the League of Nations. It soon became evident that the “temporary” Refugee Organization was becoming something more permanent. In order to reach a common policy and to stimulate the process of repatriation, Nansen convened a number of conferences. However, with the exception of the recognition of the Nansen Passport, which gave the refugees legal protection and was recognized by more than 50 States, the outcomes were small.

  • The Nansen Office

After Fridtjof Nansen’s death in 1930, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees evolved into the Nansen International Office for Refugees, a separate organization which shortly thereafter found itself overwhelmed with refugees from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Nazi Germany, the Saar.

For them, the Nansen Passport became their only permanent identity and “nationality”. The Office remained active throughout the war years, after which it became the International Refugee Organization, set up by the United Nations in 1947.

In 1951, this Organization was replaced with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with its headquarters in Geneva and more than 50 field offices throughout the world.

The Nansen International Office was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938; UNHCR was similarly honoured in 1951.

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