Minorities Need League, Says Peer
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Minorities Need League, Says Peer

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For months past there has been a concentrated attack upon the League of Nations and all it represents. The assailants appear to desire its destruction. It is certain that with it would go the whole arrangement for the protection of minorities. Those of us who value the attempt to secure the rights of minorities as part of the new international system will do well to recognize that if the League disappears it will carry with it that attempt.

Normally all those things which belong exclusively to national sovereignty are outside the international sphere. That is to say that in principle there is no justification for international interference in the internal affairs of any state. That principle is accepted in the Covenant of the League of Nations. Therefore, the conception of the framers of the Covenant was that there should be excluded from its purview all subjects which were essentially national. Attempts have been made from time to time to define “national,” but it has been found impossible to establish a hard and fast rule as to what the word exactly implies. Armaments, for instance, are a matter for each country. But extensive armaments may be of poignant interest to other nations, and the reduction and limitation of armaments is a matter of international concern. Further, it has been demonstrated that actions though regarded as within the rights of national sovereignty can yet be restrained.

To guard against invasion of national rights, an attempt was made to define what was national and what was international. But the attempt had to be abandoned, because it was recognized that even the most intrinsically national subject could, if it became the cause of a quarrel between two nations, become an international concern.


And indeed, the later history of the League has shown how difficult it is to establish any hard and fast rule on the subject. The difficulty of distinguishing between national and international matters has a close parallel in the limits of individual freedom among the citizens of a state. The constitutions of most states provide expressly or implicitly that the liberty of the individual should be respected. But this principle is subject to certain limitations. There are limitations imposed by the criminal law, and no citizen is entitled to use his freedom to conspire against the existence of the state or to break the king’s peace.

Similarly, under the League system, no nation can so exercise its national sovereignty as to endanger the security or the peace of the community or the nations. Actions which prima facie may be regarded within the national sovereignty can be restrained by international sovereignty if they are likely to lead to ill results.

It is on these grounds that racial and religious minorities have been treated as a matter of international concern. No doubt it is true that, prima facie, every state is entitled to administer the affairs of its citizens as it shall think best, and other states have no right to dictate to it how its governments should be carried on

Still, if one section of the citizens of a country is so ill-treated as to excite vehement sympathy in other countries, the result may be a menace to international peace. No nation can oppress its own subjects in a scandalous way without leading to international remonstrance. The treatment of national or religious minorities is treated as a matter of internal concern. It is clear that such ill-treatment may endanger the peace of the world.

We have seen how the recent German policy resulting in the oppression of the German Jews has excited the deep sympathy of all their co-religionists scattered all over the world, a sympathy shared by many other persons. There are familiar cases of wholesale immigration produced by oppression.

At the present moment we all know that the forced emigration of German Jews from Germany is a matter causing the gravest anxiety in many countries, the solution to which has not yet been found. Again there are cases where gross oppression has been an offence to the principles of morality of the nations of the world; and I might cite again the case of the German Jews, which is clearly in point.


I think I have said enough to show that ill-treatment of minorities cannot be regarded as purely a question of national sovereignty, but often has important international repercussions. Hence the conclusion of minority treaties.

In years gone by, the Turkish misgovernment of its Christian minorities was a fruitful source of trouble in Southeastern Europe. That was due not only to the sympathy of fellow Christians. In some cases it directly caused internal disturbance in the neighboring countries. For instance, the unrest of the Slavs in the Turkish Empire caused such anger among their co-racialists in Austria so seriously as to embarrass the Austrian government and ultimately to be one of the causes of the Great War.

Similarly, there were for long the difficulties caused by Christian and Moslem minorities, and later those caused by Jewish minorities, especially as it happened in Rumania. The consequence is that you will find scattered through treaties, particularly those made at the conclusion of great wars, treaties designed to secure the good treatment of racial and religious minorities. The Treaty of Berlin may be regarded as the ancient and the modern situation of the subject. In that treaty were included several provisions designed to secure the proper treatment of minorities. In particular, the Turks were put under considerable obligations as to how they should govern their Armenian population, and though that policy on the whole failed it was a recognition of the general principle which I am discussing. The case of the Jews in Rumania was even more simple, because there a definite international principle was for the first time laid down.


It was agreed that where, as a result of a treaty, considerable accessions were made to the territory of any country, it was reasonable and right to insist that that country should undertake to treat the racial or religious minorities under its domination with justice. It was in the nature of a bargain. It was legitimate to require that the country should carry out its government in a way that did not shock the sense of justice of those who had agreed to its enlargement.

In the Peace Treaties of Paris of 1918 and 1920, the system was not applied to Germany, I suppose, because she received no accession of territory. Nor was it applied to Italy, though she had received accession of territory. It is not very easy to see on what principle that exception was made, since racial minorities were actually transferred to Italy with the territory she acquired. It also does not apply to France, though she did receive considerable accession of territory, which were, however, regarded as in the nature of retrocessions rather than annexations. As far as one can extract from the proceednigs, it would be untrue to say that minorities were only given protection when they belonged to the same race or religion as that prevailing in their country. It is obvious that where the Jews benefited, as they did in some cases by these provisions, that would be untrue. It was not true in a number of other cases besides.


The present procedure of the League of Nations in dealing with complaints by minorities is complicated and even cumbrous. I do not think that anyone who has seen it at work would regard this description as severe. Some committees take a much stricter view of the rights of minorities than others. Some are more governed by political considerations and desire not to be uncivil or harsh to the state impugned. When they have arrived at the conclusion, they go to the League’s Council, which may and often does consider the question entirely de novo and where, unfortunately, political considerations may sometimes induce the rapporteur to take an unduly favorable view of the case which he is asked to consider.

So much have these difficulties been felt that for some time past there has been a movement among those interested to urge that you should have a permanent committee, which could gradually build up a minorities jurisprudence and could be guided by principles which had been evolved by experience.

I confess, that this seems to me a very desirable change. I believe it would be of advantage to both sides, both to the minority and the states against which they were complaining.


At present, the states that are subject to the minority provisions are resolutely opposed to any change on the ground that the principle of the whole of the minority treaties is unfair, that if it is a matter that really concerns the community of states, there is no reason whatever for confining the minority provisions to certain states. They ought to be extended in their view to all alike, and until that is done they are not prepared to consider any modifications of procedure which would improve or facilitate the administration of the code.

I doubt very much whether you can establish a satisfactory system of minority protection unless you start with the recognition that the community of nations has as such a right to insist on the proper treatment of minorities. It is not only a question of promises made to this or that country, it is the admission of certain standards which ought to be maintained by certain countries which claim to be members of the international community. This conclusion seems to me to be very much confirmed by an examination of the events which have taken place since the treaties.


There is another difficulty in the minority treaties. The League has given a general guarantee of the proper execution of what I have called the minority code. No machinery exists to enable the League to carry out that guarantee, so that in effect the provision as to the guarantee is almost a dead letter. Personally, I have grave doubts whether this guarantee should not be swept away.

It ought always to be pointed out that the whole conception of the protection of minorities is a very delicate matter and may easily do more harm than good if it is improperly exercised.

Roughly speaking, it is impossible to make any permanent and substantial improvement in the position and law of minorities without the good will of the State concerned. There is always the possibility that one may increase the discontent without improving the position of the minorities, that one may convert them from reluctant subjects into incipient rebels. Minorities must always be adjured to act as loyal members of the State to which they belong, however much they may rightly desire that their racial or religious rights and liberties may be respected. I do not believe it is possible that any coercive pressure from outside will by itself be sufficient to secure good government for the minorities.


Is there any possibility, then, of devising some system which would be generally acceptable by minorities and majorities alike? The question is a very difficult one. In the first place, it must be agreed by all who value international cooperation in any form, that, as Sir John Simon said at the recent League Assembly, there can be no admission of the doctrine that a party to a Treaty can, by his own unilateral action elect not to be bound by it. That would be from the international point of view simple anarchy.

Next, I should be inclined myself to suggest that a new agreement on the subject might be considered, which would definitely abandon the conception of a League guarantee for the good treatment of minorities. I do not think it can be carried out, and I am sure that it adds to the irritation which surrounds the subject.

I would suggest an appeal to international authority, and as far as procedure is concerned I would strongly urge the substitution of a permanent committee, if possible sitting in public, for the ad hoc committee of three.

Any reasonable person must see the very great international difficulties of inducing all the States to accept the principles of the Minorities Treaties with regard to their own territories. But I do not feel sure that it would be impossible to induce some of the leading states to accept such principles, though they are not so far

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