No. 331 NAI DFA 19/97

Memorandum by the Department of External Affairs on the League of
Nations, 1935-1936

Dublin, 14 April 1936


1. So far as the League is concerned, the principal preoccupation during the year has been the Italo-Abyssinian war and the action which fell to be taken by the Saorstát, as a member of the League, in connection with it.

2. As the history of the Italo-Abyssinian dispute has been summarized in a separate memorandum,1 nothing more need be done here than to summarize the action taken by the Saorstát in connection with the conflict, and to state the principles according to which that action was decided upon.

3. It should be recalled, in the first place, that the Saorstát is not at present a member of the League Council, which is, and has been throughout the whole period from the outbreak of the dispute in December, 1934, until now, the body exclusively responsible for dealing with the substance of the dispute, and for the negotiation of an agreed settlement of it between the parties.

4. The first occasion upon which the Saorstát was presented with an opportunity of taking any action in relation to the question was the annual session of the Assembly in September when, although the matter was not on the agenda and therefore was not formally before the Assembly at all, some seventeen or eighteen delegations took the initiative of calling for the strict application of the Covenant, indicating at the same time that, if that course were followed, their Governments would discharge the obligations falling upon them. The Saorstát was one of the delegations taking part in this spontaneous display, which was undoubtedly an accurate reflection of world feeling at the time. The speech of the leader of the Saorstát delegation on that occasion differed from the other speeches in its emphasis on the importance of anticipating future international conflicts by tackling at once the problem of existing injustices. But the following sentence in the President's speech has frequently been quoted since as stating the ultimate justification of the League's action in relation to the Italo-Abyssinian dispute: 'If on any pretext whatever we were to permit the sovereignty of even the weakest state amongst us to be unjustly taken away, the whole foundation of the League would crumble into dust.'

5. This display of feeling at the September session of the Assembly had a decisive influence on the League's future course of action in relation to the dispute. The Council immediately awoke from its torpor of the previous nine months, and from then on to the 3rd-4th October, when the Italian troops entered Abyssinia, its conduct of the negotiations was characterized by a degree of expedition and firmness for which it would be hard to find a parallel in the previous annals of the League.

6. Another action on the part of the Assembly which had a decisive influence on future developments was its decision at the end of September to adjourn, instead of closing, its ordinary session. In this connection, too, the Saorstát played an active part because the decision was largely due to the initiative of two members of the Bureau of the Assembly, one of whom was the leader of the Saorstát delegation.2 In general, it may be said that, although the Council continued, throughout the critical period which preceded the outbreak of hostilities, to be the Constitutional instrument of League action in relation to the dispute, all the momentum came from the Assembly. The Assembly's decision merely to adjourn its session meant that, when hostilities actually did break out, the forces were at once available to give the same momentum to the League's action in the new circumstances.

7. All the delegations represented at the re-convened Assembly, except those of Italy, Hungary, Austria and Albania, at once concurred in the opinion shared by all the members of the Council except Italy that Italy had resorted to war in violation of Article 12 of the Covenant. Concurrence in this opinion implied on the part of each delegation willingness to discharge the obligations which automatically attach under Article 16 (1). In order to co-ordinate the action of their respective Governments in the discharge of their individual obligations under this article, the various delegations concerned voted the setting up of the Co-ordination Committee, upon which each of them is represented. Within three weeks of the outbreak of the dispute, the Co-ordination Committee had unanimously agreed upon the measures to which, so far as this state is concerned, effect has since been given by the League of Nations (Obligations of Membership) Act, 1935, and the Order made thereunder.

8. Being represented on the Bureau of the Assembly, the Saorstát played an active role in the developments just described. The Saorstát representative on the Co-ordination Committee intervened to ensure that the financial sanctions should not work to the detriment of religious houses and communities in Italian territory and, in the discussions at the Bureau, the President intervened on more than one occasion in an endeavour to secure that the determination of the League's action in the face of the Italian aggression should so far as possible remain in the hands of the Assembly and its Bureau, as the best guarantee that decisions would be reached on the basis of the interests of the League as a whole, rather than on the basis of the particular interests of the Powers directly affected by the conflict. This object might perhaps have been achieved if the direction of affairs had remained in the hands of the Co- ordination Committee as a whole; but it has been largely frustrated by the old procedural device of delegating the work of the Co-ordination Committee to nominated, and therefore hand-picked, sub-committees and committees of experts. Side-tracked by this device and checked by the Hoare-Laval proposals, the original momentum imparted by the Assembly last September has practically ceased to operate.

9. The League of Nations (Obligations of Membership) Act and the Order made thereunder, together with the relevant Customs Notices and Regulations issued here, were duly submitted through the Permanent Delegate to the Committee of Experts appointed by the Co-ordination Committee to supervise the execution of its proposals by the individual Governments. They were passed without comment. Our statistics show that imports from Italy were £1,000 in November, £5,000 in December (probably goods 'in transit' on the 18th November, etc.), and nil in January, the latest month for which figures are available.

10. After this review, our action in relation to the Italo-Abyssinian dispute may perhaps be summed up in the following propositions:

    1. We had neither occasion nor opportunity for taking any action in connection with the dispute before the Assembly session in September. At the Assembly, we urged that the principles of the Covenant should be upheld.
    2. At the same time, we went further than any other delegation in advocating the removal by collective action on the part of the League of existing sources of international friction, and the satisfaction by pacific means of aspirations such as those adduced by Italy in defence of her Abyssinian design.
    3. We did what was possible to secure that League action in relation to the dispute would be taken from the point of view of the interests of the League as a whole, and would not be left to bodies on which the influence of states with axes to grind would preponderate.
    4. When the aggression did take place, we carried out scrupulously, so far as this state is concerned, the proposals agreed upon by the Co-ordination Committee as a whole, on the principle that the obligations of Article 16 (1) are binding automatically and cannot be evaded without breach of the Covenant. But we have not taken or sought to take any initiative in the direction of the extension of the measures agreed upon by the Co-ordination Committee as a whole.

11. During the year, we have continued to co-operate as before in the activities of the League in connection with such technical and humanitarian matters as the dangerous drug traffic, the standardization of economic statistics, the international traffic in women and children, the refugee problem, the nuisance caused by the discharge of oil from ships at sea, biological standardization, the control of political broadcasts in the interests of good international relations, the exemption from customs duties of fuel carried in aircraft engaged in international traffic, and so on. After due consideration of the various proposals made and the draft conventions and other texts prepared for the purpose, we have agreed to be represented at conferences to be convened under the auspices of the League in the course of the next few months to deal with the problem of the pollution of the sea by oil, the situation of certain classes of refugees from Germany, political broadcasting, and the tightening up of the existing penalties for drug trafficking. We were represented by a technical expert at the Conference on Biological Standardization held at Geneva last October.

12. In the course of the last Assembly, the Saorstát intervened to support certain proposals made with a view to the removal of the Assyrians from Iraq, and their settlement in the north-eastern region of the French Mandate of Syria. Substantial contributions towards the cost of this operation had been made by Britain and Iraq, but the sum of these contributions and the other available resources fell short by about £86,000 of the total sum required to finance the scheme. The proposal was that the League as a whole should make up the deficiency. To this it was objected that the League, having no share in the responsibility for the Assyrian problem, was under no obligation to contribute financially to its solution. The Saorstát delegate on the Fourth Committee deprecated the tendency to approach the question on the basis of past responsibilities, and urged that the League should not lose the opportunity of doing a great good for the sake of the relatively small financial expenditure involved. The League finally agreed to contribute the amount required, and the scheme is now in course of execution. Now that there is talk of the surrender of the French mandate over Syria, the League is in a better position than it would otherwise have been to insist that the conditions for the termination of the mandate afford better guarantees to the Assyrians than those which they received when Britain surrendered her mandate over Iraq.

13. Other matters in connection with which the Saorstát intervened in the discussions at the last Assembly were the nationality and status of women, slavery, the dispute between Bolivia and Paraguay, the reform of penal administration, and the conditions under which advisory opinions may be obtained by the League from the Permanent Court of International Justice, a question of some importance in connection with the attitude of the U.S.A. towards the Court.

14. The Economic and Financial Organizations of the League have not been quite so active in the period under review as in previous years. Two enquiries carried out last spring by the Economic Committee - one concerning agricultural protectionism and the other, the type of commercial treaty known as the clearing or compensation agreement - merely served to reveal the width of the gulf which separates the official doctrines of the Economic Committee from the present-day commercial policies of the individual members of the League. Moreover, League economic policy, with its emphasis on international trade as a means of recovery and a source of national prosperity, has been somewhat discredited by the fact that, while the world production, employment, price, and other indices are steadily rising, the index for international trade is relatively stationary. Apart from the two enquiries mentioned, the Economic Committee has carried out, during the period under review, a study of the importance of the tourist traffic as an international economic factor.

15. A question which has been considered in the Department during the year and will come up for discussion at the next Assembly is the composition of the League Council. We are taking the line, firstly, that every member of the League should have a fair, and so far as possible an equal, prospect of securing representation on the Council, and that, if necessary, the size of the Council should be increased in order to secure that result; secondly, that though the system of group representation is a bad one, it is now so strongly established that it must henceforth be accepted as a fact; and thirdly that there should be no increase in the number of permanent or semi-permanent seats and that measures should be taken to ensure that the non-permanent seats will not be 'cornered' by the more important states in each group, but that each seat will rotate fairly among the members of the group entitled to it.

1 Not printed.

2 Eamon de Valera led the Irish delegation.

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