The independence of the international civil service, 1919-2019: minority rights at the League of Nations and human rights at the UN – Part 2

by John Burley, Formerly UNDP; Office of the Director-General; UNCTAD between 1972-2004. Blog BORRAR, Blog BORRAR, By invitation, By invitation BORRAR

In part one of this blog post, which can be read here, I described the origins of the independent international civil service, created in 1919. I also highlighted the importance of the adoption, as part of the overall Treaty of Versailles, of a set of treaties on minorities (i.e. the minority treaties). Part two will look at how the secretariat of the League administered the minority rights provisions of these treaties and how that experience fed into the building of the secretariat function of the United Nations (UN).

A recently published book,[1] co-authored by four former UN officials, has thrown new light on the development of the League’s programmes, activities and secretariat, and how these policies and people transitioned after World War Two from the League to the UN and its specialised agencies. Although there was no formal transfer of the League’s (by then) discredited minorities regimes, much of the positive experience gained by League staff in administering the regimes did migrate to the human rights organs of the new United Nations Organisation.

The League of Nations Covenant was broadly silent on the issue of human rights, in keeping with the convention of the times. For example, a suggestion from US President Woodrow Wilson that the Allied Powers should pronounce themselves in favour of freedom of religion went the same way as a Japanese request for a racial equality clause: nowhere. At the time, these ideas were simply considered too radical and controversial. If the League was to be an association of freedom-loving democratic states, why was there any need to be worried about the observance of human rights?

However, as mentioned in Part one of this post, President Wilson and others present at the Paris Peace Conference were worried that the potential mistreatment of minorities in some existing or about-to-be-created States could lead to instability and, eventually, to conflict. The ‘peacemakers’ had in mind, for example, Jews in Poland, Romania and Lithuania; Muslims in Albania, Greece and Yugoslavia; non-Muslims in Turkey and Iraq; and, generally speaking, any ethnic groups that might be in a minority in their country of nationality but in a majority in neighbouring countries.

Accordingly, the minorities treaties under the League created a new system of international supervision to project minority rights.  The rights were individual in nature but collective in reality. However, the treaties quickly ran in to difficulties. The international laws created through these treaties were held to prevail over national laws. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the newly created States resented this infringement of their hard-won sovereignty. Moreover, predicting later arguments at the UN over selectivity, these States felt it unfair that only they were expected to abide by these new international obligations – while the Allied Powers refused to hold themselves to those very same standards. This was despite the fact that the Allied Powers had very similar problems with the treatment of minorities, either at home (e.g. the treatment of African Americans in the US’ southern States) or in the colonies (in the case of Britain and France). The League therefore found itself in a difficult situation: it was expected to oversee compliance with international treaty obligations regarding the treatment of minorities in countries that refused to submit themselves to those legal obligations.

At this point the secretariat managed to find an imaginative way forward. Directed by a Norwegian lawyer and diplomat, Eric Colban,[2] the Minorities Section of the League created a petition system under which minorities could send grievances to the League. Unfortunately (again predicting similar difficulties when the UN would later try to establish a human rights petitions system), Member States led by Great Britain and France were reluctant to do more than ‘take note’ of the petitions received: the Allied Powers had no wish to antagonise the treaty States when their support was needed to resist both German revanchism and Soviet expansion. So it was that Colban, together with his Deputy, the Spanish diplomat Pablo de Azcárate, and sympathetic advisers such as the British classicist Professor Gilbert Murray, put in place arrangements that enabled the Minorities Section of the Secretariat to act as a ‘supervisory authority’ for the treaties. The Section would review petitions, verify the facts and report back to a small intergovernmental committee of three Member States, who would then decide on further action. This approach not only satisfied the spirit of the treaties, it also helped get relevant States out of a tight spot.

Erik Colban, first Director, Minorities Section, League of Nations, 1919-1927, League of Nations Archives, Geneva

What is crucial about this story, as Azcárate later pointed out, is that ‘international civil servants succeeded where politicians and diplomats had failed. From 1922 on, the Minorities Section de facto took over the role of supervisor’[3] in place of Member States. It did so by carefully balancing a diverse set of competing interests on the part of the Great Powers, the States on whom the treaties were imposed, the minorities themselves, and opinion in minority kin-States, especially Germany.

Sadly, contemporary geopolitics, especially the failure of the Allied Powers to stand up to aggressor States, meant that the minority treaties in the end failed to live up to their principal purpose: the protection of minorities. The Secretary-General of the League at the time, Eric Drummond, later commentated that it would have perhaps been preferable to have created a general convention applying to the rights of all inhabitants, with special reference to minorities.

Notwithstanding, and somewhat paradoxically, the supervisory system put in place by the League’s secretariat to oversee compliance with the minority treaties), survives to this day. The regime that Colban and others created rested upon the ability of an impartial international institution – the Minorities Section – to independently supervise the implementation of the treaties, under the overall responsibility of the Council of the League. Over time, this supervisory process became more transparent. This was the essence of an independent and neutral international secretariat that Drummond had sought to establish for the League, (see Part one of this post).

Transition to the United Nations Organisation

Revulsion over the crimes against humanity committed during the 1930s and during World War Two created enormous pressure behind calls for the creation of new international institutions and instruments for the protection of human rights.

Consequently, modest human rights provisions were included in the founding Charter of the new United Nations Organisation. Importantly, these provisions, and the broad notion that the UN must address (in one way or another) the issue of human rights, were accepted by the ‘Big Three’ (i.e. the US, UK, and USSR). As Mark Mazower, a British historian, has pointed out, one way in which the League’s minorities regime paved the way for the UN’s post-war human rights regime is that the latter, with its focus on individual rights, provided cover for the post-war Powers to abandon the former with its focus on group rights.[4]

Notwithstanding, the ‘new human rights regime had no legal binding force, […] probably the price to be paid for US and Soviet participation.’ In effect, according to Mazower, ‘the rights regime of the new UN represented a considerable weakening of international will compared with the interwar League,’ because the UN in its early days ‘abandoned the League’s commitment, however faltering, to protecting minorities.’[5] Interestingly, the minority treaties foresaw the need, in case of dispute, for possible referral to the Permanent Court of International Justice. This happened on occasion and the resulting decisions were generally favourable to the protection of minority rights. No similar provision would exist in the post-1945 human rights machinery.

Nevertheless, it was the internationalisation of the League’s responsibility for the protection of minority – or collective – rights that led, inexorably, to a broad international concern for the protection of human rights. This would become the bedrock of the post-1945 system. Moreover, crucially, the UN’s new human rights regime would inherit the essential functions of international supervision of the protection of rights that had been such an innovation of the League’s minority regime, as well as an independent, non-politicised, international civil service.

[1] Eric Drummond and his Legacies – the League of Nations and the Beginnings of Global Governance, by David Macfadyen, Michael D.V. Davies, Marilyn Carr and John Burley, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

[2] Eric Colban was recruited very early on by Eric Drummond to run the Minorities Section.  After a brief period (1927-1930) as Director of the League’s Disarmament Section, he returned to his country’s diplomatic service.  Closely associated with the establishment of the United Nations, he became the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Kashmir from 1948-1950.

[3] Joost, H. (1995) The League of Nations and its Minority Protection Programme in Eastern Europe: Revolutionary, Unequalled and Underestimated, p52-53, in UN. (1955), The League of Nations 1920-1946.

[4] Mazower, M (2004) « The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933-1950”, The Historical Journal, 47 (2).

[5] Mazower, M (2004) « The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933-1950”, The Historical Journal, 47 (2).

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