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40 Minutes of Thirteenth Meeting of Principal Delegates to Imperial Conference

E (PD) (37) 13 (extracts) LONDON, 4 June 1937


Anthony Eden opened the discussions by stating that 'the views of members of the League differed very widely as to the course to be adopted, and that 'it would seem, therefore, necessary to proceed slowly and cautiously in the matter'. It was necessary to avoid a split between those who would introduce more binding sanctions and those who would delete all sanctions from the Covenant. Eden also favoured separating the Covenant from the Treaty of Versailles, and working towards the ideal of maximum universality in the League.

Prime Minister W. Mackenzie King said 'Canada did not consider that the League could advance peace by putting its reliance on force; that commitments in advance to the use of sanctions would not be observed in future as they had not been in several familiar instances, in the past; that the League should not be turned into a League against Fascism or a League against Communism; that there was a great work to be done by the League in the field of mediation and conciliation, enquiry into grievances and social and economic advancement . . .' He also said that Canada 'had never sought to press its views upon any other Commonwealth Government'.

MR CASEY said that the views of the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia would be stated by Mr Bruce, who was specially qualified to speak on this subject from his long experience of Geneva.

MR BRUCE said that the views of the Commonwealth of Australia had been made clear at the meeting of the Assembly in September, 1936.

[1] At the outset one very important issue must be faced. Ought we now to attempt to re-cast the whole basis of the League and drastically to redraft the Covenant or would it be better to leave the position as it was and to define by interpretative action more clearly what are the obligations of States Members of the League? In the view of the Commonwealth Government the proper course to adopt was the second of these alternatives. To attempt a drastic redrafting of the Covenant would inevitably disrupt the League and bring it to an end. It should be remembered that the founders of the League and the framers of the Covenant had based their work on the assumption that the League would be universal and would have at its disposal overwhelming authority and force. Looked at from this angle there was little to criticise either in the League or in the Covenant and if to-day we had to attempt to construct a new League and frame a new Covenant on these same assumptions of universality and overwhelming force we should probably find that we should use very much the same language as had been used in 1919.

Experience, however, had shown that the failure of the League to realise universality had completely altered the position in various respects and particularly in regard to the employment of sanctions. It was no exaggeration to say that in a League which was not universal the application against a powerful aggressor of force of any kind had been shown to be in fact impracticable. In this respect the case of Abyssinia was a good example in that it showed that in practice it was impossible to draw any hard and fast distinction between economic and military sanctions. It was now generally recogniscd that the imposition of economic sanctions might well result in war and that therefore States would not venture to impose economic sanctions unless they were prepared to carry their policy to its logical conclusion and to reinforce their economic sanctions by military sanctions with all the consequences which must inevitably ensue.

Australia favoured the separation of the Covenant from the Treaty of Versailles. With regard to Article 11 Australia thought that the Council should be given greater latitude so as to enable it to make recommendations under the first paragraph of Article 11 without the consent of the States in controversy. This would enable the League to intervene more effectively in the earlier stages of disputes. The great advantage of so doing would be that it would create the possibility of our conciliatory efforts taking place before the dispute had reached such a point that it was almost impossible for those concerned in it to retire from the positions they had taken up.

As regards Article 16 the position was that the strict letter of that Article was now inoperative. Australia desired that the existing practice should be recognised and put beyond question.

This practice dated from the Resolution of the Assembly of the 4th October, 1921. In the Abyssinian dispute the provisions of Article 16 requiring the application of automatic sanctions were not given effect to. Instead of the automatic imposition of sanctions full consultation took place after which sanctions upon which there had been general agreement were applied. This procedure was in accord with paragraph 4 of the Assembly Resolution of 1921 and Australia would like to see this paragraph embodied in the Covenant, but recognises that action to this end is at the present moment impracticable. The Australian Government also thought that the League Committee should consider the possibility, should any circumstance likely to endanger the peace of the world be brought to the notice of the Council, of calling together the States members of the League for the purpose of their considering their attitude towards the dispute and determining whether in the event of a country which appeared to be embarking upon aggression persisting in its intentions they would be prepared to take some action on a co-operative basis before the contemplated aggression had actually become an act of aggression. He was satisfied that if there could be this general meeting of the members of the League for purposes of consultation, far more satisfactory results would emerge than could possibly be looked for from the adoption of any policy of sanctions. Apart from other considerations it should be borne in mind that as the result of recent experiences nations were quite ready to consult together, and even to take action, provided that by doing so they ran no risk of involving themselves in hostilities. He urged, therefore, that Article 16 as interpreted by paragraph 4 of the 1921 Resolution, should be accepted and that, in addition, provision should be made for an immediate meeting of all the members of the League to consult together and to determine what, if any, action should be taken.

The Australian Government agreed generally with the views of the Government of the United Kingdom as to the utility of regional pacts, though care must be taken to safeguard ourselves against such pacts developing into mere military alliances, which were such a menace to the world in former days.

As regards Article 19 Australia thought that it was unwise that this Article remained to all intents and purposes inoperative. The League could not possibly succeed if it was to be turned unto an instrument for the maintenance of the status quo at any given time. Article 19 which was an article for the remedying of grievances-one of the fundamental objects of the League-should be made operative. In conclusion Mr Bruce, after summarising the views of the Australian Delegation on the points he had mentioned, expressed the opinion that if we could proceed on the lines he had suggested there would be a very good prospect of securing the co- operation of the United States and other Powers at present outside the League.

[Prime Minister Savage of New Zealand said he was opposed to 'abandoning ... the substance for the shadow. He wondered what guarantee there was that we could secure the moral support of nations now outside the League if we weakened the Covenant in the ways that had been suggested.']

MR CHAMBERLAIN enquired what view the New Zealand Delegation took of Mr Bruce's suggestion that while Article 16 of the Covenant should not be altered it should be agreed that the Article should be interpreted as set out in Paragraph 4 of the Assembly Resolution of 4th October, 1921. Under this interpretation there would be no obligation on a Member of the League automatically to apply sanctions, but there would be an obligation to consult with all the other Members of the League on what should be done.

MR SAVAGE thought that the difficulty about this suggestion was that if it was contemplated that, as a result of the consultation, a unanimous decision would have to be reached, no action would, in fact, ever be taken because it would be impossible to secure unanimity.

MR BRUCE said that this was not what was contemplated. For example, in the case of Abyssinia, sanctions had been imposed although a unanimous decision in favour of the imposition of sanctions had not been secured.

MR SAVAGE said that he saw no objection in these circumstances to the consultation proposed.

MR CHAMBERLAIN pointed out that such consultation would give an opportunity of finding out in advance how far other nations were prepared, if at all, to take action. Unless this could be ascertained in advance the consequences to those Powers who fully implemented the provisions of the Covenant by taking the action might be embarrassing.

MR SAVAGE agreed. In his opinion it was very important to know in advance what the other countries were prepared to do in the way of imposing sanctions against an aggressor.

[General Hertzog took a quite contrary view to Savage. 'It was surely very illogical to want to give to an institution which had failed satisfactorily to make use of much smaller powers, the greater powers which this proposal contemplated. The only result of such a proceeding would be a widespread loss of confidence in the authority and prestige of the League ... There was a very great deal to be said for Mr Bruce's suggestion . . . because it rendered unnecessary the reconstruction of the League and the re- drafting of the Covenant ... The only question was to what extent other nations could be persuaded to agree to what was now proposed. In this he feared that there might be a great deal of difficulty . . .' The course he thought should be pursued 'was to concentrate on those activities of the League in which the League had been useful and effective, and as time went on to see how these activities could be gradually expanded and enlarged . . .' Sir Zafrullah Khan referred to public opinion in India which was likely to approve only of a reduction of India's contribution. He added that he was 'not in possession of the Government of India's detailed views on specific aspects of League Reform. He knew, however, that his Government would welcome any accession of strength to the League'.

Eden said he thought the discussion had been 'very valuable', and paid tribute to Bruce's 'brilliant analysis of the present situation of the League', with which analysis he 'found himself in agreement with practically every point ... In brief, the outcome of the discussions was that we must keep an international authority in being to regulate our disputes. Its machinery had to be overhauled, and there was fairly general agreement that this could best be done on the general lines suggested by Mr Bruce.']

MR MACKENZIE KING raised a question as to whether under the 1921 Resolutions or the procedure followed in the Abyssinian case members were free to decide whether or not to apply sanctions. He understood that under those precedents it was for each member to decide whether the Covenant had been broken, but if it agreed it had been broken, that member was required to apply sanctions. If so, it would not be easy to bring in some of the States now outside.

MR BRUCE said that in the Abyssinian case the procedure of the automatic application of extensive sanctions under Article 16 was not employed, but the interpretation of the 1921 Resolution was adopted and full consultation took place as to what sanctions should be employed.

As a result of the experience in the Abyssinian case, Mr Bruce stated that he was convinced that members of the League now recognised that economic sanctions were not automatically applied but would be the subject matter of consultation with a view to co- operative action. He added that if there was the slightest doubt as to this being the interpretation now put on Article 16 it was essential that the point should be cleared up, as any suggestion that there was any obligation for the automatic application of sanctions would be a bar to the entry into the League of the nations at present outside it, particularly the United States of America.

He did not think that anybody who had sat at Geneva, as he had, throughout the whole of the Abyssinian discussions would deny that this change of atmosphere had taken, place.

The League in fact had learnt by experience, and it would now be a mistake to go back to the earlier assumptions. There would certainly be no hope of getting the United States into the League on the earlier basis.

1 Not printed.

Last Updated: 11 September 2013

Category: International relations

Topic: History