26 Minutes of First Meeting of Principal Delegates to Imperial Conference

E (PD) (37) 1 (extract) LONDON, 19 May 1937

ABYSSINIA

MR LYONS suggested that the question of Abyssinia was urgent and that it should be considered at the present meeting.

MR EDEN said that his information was that the problem was now more difficult than it had been last September, when the Credentials Committee had examined the credentials of the Abyssinian Delegation. There were now two alternative problems depending on whether or not an Abyssinian Delegation was present at Geneva. If the Delegation were present the Credentials Committee would have to decide whether the Delegation's credentials were in order, that is to say, whether they represented any territory. There would have to be discussion and some decision.

He had, however, no idea what the Emperor intended to do. If no Abyssinian Delegation were sent, it might be suggested that no question would arise, but he felt that some countries would bring the matter up, particularly having regard to the position of their diplomatic missions in Rome, where, for instance, France and Sweden had no Ambassadors. If the question were raised, it seemed clear that no one contemplated that the League should rescind the decision that Italy was the aggressor. Many, however, contemplated that it would be necessary to recognise the reality that Abyssinia had ceased to exist. The Swedish Foreign Minister [1] had pointed out to him, in this connection, that if the League took no action, the Italians might bring to Geneva a second Delegation purporting to represent Abyssinia. It was very difficult to come to any final decision without knowing what aspect of the matter would come up at Geneva but, whilst it seemed undesirable to ignore the present situation, it seemed equally clear that the United Kingdom ought not to take the lead in raising the matter. One of the objections to our doing so was that the problem intimately concerned the smaller Powers who were ready to believe unfounded rumours that the United Kingdom and France as large powers were ready to push Abyssinia out of the League.

MR SAVAGE said that he felt that it would be desirable to endeavour to decide what ought to be done.

MR EDEN felt that this depended on the form in which the question came up. If the question was whether the Emperor now represented anything in Abyssinia, the answer was clearly 'No.' If the question was whether the League should rescind the declaration of Italy as the aggressor, the answer was also 'No.' GENERAL HERTZOG said that the difficulty with regard to the first question lay in its relation to Article 10 of the Covenant.

MR EDEN agreed, though he said that there was an argument on this point which he would like to present on Friday. Article 10 would not, however, affect the Credentials Committee, which would only have to say whether or not the Abyssinian Delegation represented the territory in question.

MR NASH asked whether anyone would raise the question of the continuance of Italy as a member of the League after she had broken the Covenant.

MR EDEN thought that there was nothing in the Covenant which provided that a member should be turned out of the League for having broken its rules.

MR NASH pointed out that the effect of the present situation was that the country attacked went out of the League whilst the aggressor stayed in.

MR SAVAGE suggested that the members of the Conference should agree to some definite line on this question before Mr Eden left for Geneva.

MR EDEN said that it would be helpful to him to have the general views of the members of the Conference, though it was difficult to visualise now the exact situation which would arise at Geneva.

MR SAVAGE said that if the Abyssinian Delegation was not entitled to be at Geneva, the representatives of the aggressor were also not entitled to be there. He felt that it was impossible to overlook the annihilation of a country by the breaking of every League rule. He drew attention to Article 16 (4) of the Covenant whereby any Member of the League might be declared no longer a member.

MR EDEN agreed that the present position was not a satisfactory one and that though action might be taken under Article 16 (4) he was doubtful whether this would be a helpful contribution to peace.

MR SAVAGE pointed out that other countries which had broken the Covenant had left the League, but that Italy had remained a member.

MR MACKENZIE KING drew attention to the fact that the members of the British Commonwealth were separately represented at Geneva and that it was possible that Canadian and New Zealand views might differ on questions before the League. He felt that Mr Eden should have a free hand to speak for his own Government at the League, but he was doubtful whether it was possible for the Conference to frame a common policy on the subject.

MR SAVAGE suggested that a united stand on this question was desirable.

MR MACKENZIE KING said that this might be difficult. The Canadian position with regard to the League was now very different from that which obtained when the League was constituted and when it had been thought that the United States would be a member.

GENERAL HERTZOG said that he understood that if representatives with credentials from the Emperor of Abyssinia presented themselves at Geneva, the Credentials Committee would say that, in view of the de facto position, the credentials of these representatives could not be accepted.

He feared, however, that such a decision might have the effect of killing the League, having regard to Article 10 under which all members undertook to respect the territorial integrity of other members.

If the annihilation of Abyssinia were recognised by the Credentials Committee, this would amount to the cancellation of Article 10 which was the heart of the League, and the position of the members of the League would be no different from that of signatories of the Kellogg Pact. [2]

MR BRUCE said that he had been a good deal at Geneva during the last four years and that his experience there might be of assistance to the Conference. Whilst it was true that recognition of the de facto position would conflict with Article 10, a similar state of affairs had prevailed as regards Article 16 ever since the Italian aggression more than a year ago. The logical position with regard to the Covenant would not therefore be seriously affected by whatever action was taken next week. He felt that the matter should be considered in the light of the report on proposed changes in the Covenant when this was ready, and he thought that it was generally agreed that it would be best not to attempt any decisions with regard to the Covenant until that report was available.

With regard to Mr Mackenzie King's remarks, he felt that the members of the Conference should regard themselves, when considering the question of Abyssinia, as representatives of a group of countries with common interests who were endeavouring to ascertain whether they could support any helpful policy at Geneva.

Such consultation would in no way prevent each country taking its own line at Geneva, and he strongly urged that the matter should therefore be discussed, particularly in view of the fact that there was often considerable confusion in the League proceedings.

He thought that the best course would be to consider on Friday whether anything could be done to clarify the issues, so that the representatives of the members of the British Commonwealth could have the various alternatives in their minds next week when the matter came up at Geneva.

IT WAS AGREED that (1) the Principal Delegates should meet at noon on Friday, when Mr Eden would make a statement dealing with certain questions in detail, (2) that a decision whether or not the Principal Delegates should meet on Saturday morning should be deferred until it was seen what progress was made on Friday, (3) that a press communique in the terms of Appendix 1 [3] hereto should be issued.

1 R. J. Sandler.

2 See Document 17, note 6.

3 Not printed.

[FA : IMP. CONF. 1937, MEETINGS]