NOVEMBER 15, 1920: FIRST MEETING OF THE ASSEMBLY OF THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS IN GENEVA
By René Wadlow
The real contributions made by the League of Nations to the development of a sense of world community have been widely disregarded. The League is too often disparaged because of the failure of its Members to carry out their obligations, especially in the face of armed aggression.
Yet it has been said that when a star breaks, it gives birth to a thousand suns. That is just what happened with the League, for the League prepared the way for the United Nations and the further development of world law. Let us look at some of its achievements.
1)An essential precondition to any solid world organization is an impartial civil service responsible only to the head of the organization, under obligation not to accept instructions from any government or outside authority, and committed to the promotion of the aims and principles of the Organization. This the League of Nations provided for the first time under the leadership of the first Secretary-General, Sir Eric Drummond. He took bold, if discrete, initiatives in drawing the attention of the League Council to conflicts and suggested conflict resolution measures.
2)The League also dealt with the economic and monetary reconstruction of Austria, Hungary and some other countries, with the issues of minorities, with the administration of former German and Ottoman territories under the mandates system. The League provided the starting point for future work on refugees and drug control. The International Labor Organization was created alongside the League, its budget being voted by the League Assembly.
3)With the League, for the first time, it became possible to develop a world review of production, trade, health and other economic and social data. No doubt, the studies produced by the League were embryonic — the basic information in the hands of governments being nowhere near what it is today. However, without this start, the kind of world economic planning — or at least overview — which we have today would not have been conceivable.
Unfortunately, the League of Nations ran into difficulties from the start. The United States refused to join; too long a time elapsed before Germany and the Soviet Union were admitted. The legacy of the First World War — not primarily a matter for the League — upset both the political and economic climate: huge reparations due by Germany, the payment of large debts by the Allies to the United States, monetary collapse in several countries with general economic protectionism rampant. All this contributed to the Great Depression of the 1930s, and in turn accentuated the structural weaknesses of the world economy.
Then came the aggression committed by Japan, Italy and Germany, which found the resolve of the Western European countries and the USA weakened. The national foreign offices and the war offices were still thinking in terms of balance of power and could not bring themselves to think outside a narrow nationalistic framework.
Fortunately, today, a sense of global citizenship, of world loyalty, has been growing. By looking back to the first meeting of the League Assembly, we can mark the progress not only of institutions but also in the spirit of the women and men who shape them. Today, we see more and more people whose chosen vocation is to make this earth a true home for humanity. They have dedicated themselves to the same tasks that the League began but left unfinished.
René Wadlow is President and Chief Representative to the United Nations in Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.