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The League of Nations and Anglo-French Colonialism in the Middle East

The public have misunderstood the powers of the League of Nations regarding mandates. Mandates were not the creation of the League, and they could not be altered by the League. The League’s duties were confined to seeing that the terms of the mandates were in accor dance with the decisions taken by the Allied Powers, and that in carry ing out these mandates the Mandatory Powers should be under the supervision not under the control of the League.

A mandate was a self imposed limitation by the conquerors on the sovereignty which they exercised over the conquered territory.

Arthur Lord Balfour, speech to the Council of the League of Nations, June 192234

The League of Nations moved to its new home in Geneva’s Hotel National in November 1920. The headquarters was in a central location on the alpine shores of Lake Geneva, and in sight of the perpetually snow-covered peaks of Mont Blanc. After President Wilson’s death in 1924, the Hotel National was renamed Palais Wilson, and in the late

1920s work began on the eventual home of the League of Nations on a donated park above the city and lake and across from Mont Blanc. The location, in a breathtakingly lovely place in the most tranquil and picturesque city, in the most important neutral European country, lent an air of peaceful, civilized, and optimistic industriousness to the work of the various commissions and councils.

Geneva was a fitting and appropriate home for an organization of such high hopes and fine idealistic principals. It is also sadly symbolic that the long-planned League of Nations headquarters, the Palais des Nations, high above the shores of the lake, surrounded by a vast park full of ancient trees, including many Lebanon cedars, was finally completed in 1936 in time for the Great Palestine Revolt, the Spanish Civil War, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and the German occupation of Central Europe, all of which conspired to doom the League of Nations to final irrelevance and oblivion. The grand building was nearly empty through the World War II, and eventually became the headquarters of the United Nations in Europe. The League of Nations library, a gift to the League from John D. Rockefeller Jr., serves today as the archives.

Woodrow Wilson had made the phrase “Consent of the Governed” the centerpiece of his political career and philosophy. Wilson had adopted the more radical-sounding phrase “self-determination” from Lloyd George, who borrowed it from Trotsky.35 In declaring war on Germany in 1917 Wilson proclaimed “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.” Wilson had opted not to include Austro-Hungary or the Ottoman State in his war declaration since neither state had menaced the US, but he had chosen, self-consciously and against wide criticism, to place his finger on the scale of the European balance of power, guaranteeing an eventual British and French victory in Europe. Wilson’s politics exemplified the idea of consent and of popular sovereignty as the basis of all state legitimacy. As his own experience in denying rights to African-Americans in the American south demonstrated, however, the practice was more complicated than the theory. Rarely was the gap between liberal theory and political practice wider than in the League of Nations Middle East mandates.

British and French policy-makers worried the new League of Nations mandatory regime would place limits on their rule in the new territories. British diplomats negotiating the San Remo Conference in April 1920 agreed that the best situation would be for the League to draft the mandate treaties for each country, and submit the drafts to the mandatory powers for approval. If the League of Nations drafted the treaties it would avoid the perception that colonial powers were drafting their own colonial treaties, to be merely rubber-stamped by the new League of Nations

Mandates Commission. “If the Allies in conference distribute the mandates among themselves and then draft the conditions on which they will take them, it will enhance the impression (current already in some quarters) that mandates are merely ‘whitewashed’ annexation,” noted a British diplomat.36 French diplomats by contrast, were worried that they would be somehow tricked or out-maneuvered by the Mandates Commission, and perhaps by the British, and that ceding control of the treaty-drafting process would damage the admittedly tenuous French position.37 The result was stasis, and it took eighteen months for the mandatory governments to finally submit their mandate treaties to the League of Nations. Once the treaties were submitted, the Mandate Section scheduled the first Mandates Commission meeting for October 1921.38

The Mandate Section was organized in early 1920, but the small staff of typists, secretaries, and translators had to wait to convene the first meeting of the permanent Mandates Commission. William Rappard took the job as director of the Mandate Section and member of the Mandate Commission. (See Figure 2.3.) The Commission comprised

Mandates Section Staff. William Rappard at right, c.1922 (League of Nations Archive, w/permission)

Figure 2.3. Mandates Section Staff. William Rappard at right, c.1922 (League of Nations Archive, w/permission)

Mandates Commission, c.1922 (League of Nations Archive, w/permission)

Figure 2.4. Mandates Commission, c.1922 (League of Nations Archive, w/permission)

nine appointed members, one each from Britain and France, and other countries occupying mandates. The Mandate Commission members from mandatory countries were called “accredited representatives.” (See Figure 2.4.) The Commission was supposed to review and comment on the treaties and reports submitted by the powers, but at first neither Britain nor France was in a hurry to provide the treaty or reports. Meanwhile, petitions in their hundreds streamed into the mail room at Geneva.

Rappard was a Harvard-trained political economist who, though belonging to an old Geneva family, was born and grew up partly in New York. He had served as a member of the Swiss delegation to the Peace Conference and had met Wilson there. Wilson so admired Rappard that their personal relationship influenced the decision to base the new League of Nations at Geneva. Rappard was equally at home in the two official languages of the League, French and English, and as a Swiss citizen, he had not served in the government of any of the Great Powers, though he was an international lawyer and academic of increasing renown. He approached the work of the League of Nations with critical neutrality that his British and French colleagues rarely shared.

In January 1920, as the Mandate Section began its work, the Manchester Guardian published a report titled “The Problem of the Mandates.” The article was read, annotated, discussed, and preserved in the first archives of the Mandate Section. The article identified the flaws of the mandate regime before its launch, and its annotations show Rappard was aware of the pitfalls that eventually doomed the mandatory arrangement. The article noted that collisions between the Great Powers over their desires to dominate weaker countries were a central cause of the war, and that the League of Nations should limit these conflicts. The League of Nations could mark an advance from an atmosphere of competitive predation between strong and weak countries to one of protection. In contrast to old imperialism, perhaps the strong could work together to protect the weak. But why, the report asked, should the new “international protectorates,” or mandates, not be under the impartial and international control of the League itself, instead of the old imperial powers, and why do the former territories of the Ottoman Empire require any tutelage at all except for the most informal and disinterested advice?

The writer blamed President Wilson for what seemed likely to be a miscarriage of justice and missed opportunity. The writer noted that Britain and France had a long history of rivalry and tangled interests in the region of their mandates, and that the League of Nations could do nothing to dull the competition. “The Anglo-French Agreement of 1916 (Sykes Picot) is still extant and neither government has had the courage to denounce it, and its ugly but precise features.” Claims of disinterested altruism notwithstanding, the writer noted, “Mesopotamia is an outpost for the defense of India, and the Admiralty covets its untapped oil. As for Palestine, Lord Curzon declared in a speech a few weeks ago that we could not give up Egypt (a protectorate) because it was necessary for the defense of Palestine (a mandate), and that he considered Palestine in the strategic system of the British Empire.” France also had interests in railways and silk, and the church in its mandates.

The Guardian noted the wishes of the populations had never been considered, despite mandate language requiring this consideration. Mandates would succeed only if the relationship between mandatory and citizens was precisely defined, and if the League of Nations had oversight and the ability to challenge or end the mandate. Secretary General Sir Eric Drummond’s office noted that the proposal for a regularized inspection regime was “alarming,” and sure to provoke opposition.39

Despite the refusal to allow mandatory citizens to take part in League of Nations discussions, hundreds of petitions, letters, and telegrams began to arrive before anyone had considered what to do with them.

The accredited representatives of Britain and France at Geneva considered such correspondence from their mandatory charges a great nuisance and made clear their wish to dispose of petitions unread and unconsidered. In this hope they were unsuccessful, and though many considered the written protests deeply irritating, it was a singular feature of the mandate regime that they could not be simply thrown away. The presence of an ever-growing number of protests brought the gap between mandate theory and practice into immediate and stark relief.

Both mandate and League of Nations officials knew little about Ottoman governance and were apparently unaware of the historical role of petitions in the Ottoman state. But Ottoman subjects had been interacting with their government by petition for centuries. In the early modern period the Ottoman sultan, in common with most monarchs, legitimated his rule by claiming a divine dispensation. The state, like earlier Islamic kingdoms, based the dispensation on the sovereign’s role as guarantor of justice. The Ottoman “Circle of Justice” spelled out societal obligations in a comprehensive theory of state. The state dispensed and guaranteed justice to the state’s subjects, thereby assuring security and prosperity.

Petitioners routinely made reference to the role and importance of justice in the relation between sovereign and subject, and commonly called upon the sultan to be aware that this or that official was denying or degrading the justice the state guaranteed. After 1908, petitions were often couched in terms of constitutional rights, parliament, and citizenship, and the scope of possible complaints and expectations of redress, expanded dramatically.40 In 1920, bags of petitions took the mandates’ new masters by unpleasant surprise.

The earliest petitions to the League of Nations were in opposition to Zionism, the Balfour Declaration, and the assignment of French and British mandates in Syria and Palestine. The leading Ottoman politician of Jerusalem, Musa Kazim al-Husayni, wrote in December 1920, and repeatedly over the following months. He identified himself as “the legal representative of all classes and communities of the Palestinian Arab People.” He wished to remind Great Britain of the pledges given to Sharif Husayn, and emphasized his people’s opposition to the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. Al-Husayni protested for the rights of Palestinians to determine the destiny and direction of their own country.41 His letters were polite, and dignified, but his expression in English left something to be desired.

Musa Kazim al-Husayni was a distinguished veteran Ottoman statesman, a former provincial governor, and parliamentary representative, and mayor of Jerusalem. When al-Husayni addressed protestors at a demonstration in Jerusalem against the San Remo Conference in April 1920, he was fired as mayor and briefly imprisoned. Forcibly retired, he turned to full-time international political advocacy for the cause of Palestine. Musa Kazim made many trips to London and Geneva, as chairman of the Arab Executive Committee in Palestine.42

The Executive Committee of the Syrian Palestinian Congress formed the main exile advocacy group for the population of Syria and Palestine. From exile in Europe Shakib Arslan had become the congress’ leading figure. After fleeing the allied occupation of Istanbul in November 1918, he stayed in Berlin in the company of a handful of other exiled Ottoman politicians. He spent the next few years a mostly homeless exile, living in hotels in Berlin, Switzerland, and for a time in Moscow, and eventually back to Istanbul, where he learned he had few friends and fewer options left. The French occupation made it impossible for him to return to Syria or Lebanon, and French authorities explicitly barred him. Between early 1924 and 1925 he lived sporadically with his family in exile in Mersin in Turkey near the northern border with the Syrian mandate. He collected petitions and wrote an endless stream of Arabic and French articles, letters, and editorials. He also tried to arouse Mustafa Kemal to support opposition to the Anglo- French settlement and possible reattachment of the mandate territories to Anatolia. Kemal was unmoved.43 Arslan traveled repeatedly to Geneva after 1919, and lived there in exile for two decades after 1925, often in difficult financial and personal circumstances.

Rappard was unsure how to deal with the seemingly endless protests. Rustum Haydar had identified the problem during the Paris Peace Conference: the League of Nations charter defined a mandate loosely, but neither the rights of the mandatory citizens nor the limits on the power of the mandatory power were defined. Rappard wrote League of Nations Secretary General Sir Eric Drummond for guidance. Drummond, a veteran of the British Foreign Office and a member of the Liberal Party, was not interested in the protests from the new mandates, and ignored repeated requests from Rappard for clarification over the space of two years. Rappard proposed that letters and petitions be formally acknowledged and forwarded to the Mandates Commission.

I cannot bring myself to feel that we are doing our full duty toward the inhabi tants of these territories. Their protests are certainly often naive and badly worded, but I do feel that they can make out a strong case against the way in which they have been and are being treated by France and Great Britain, as well as against the League of Nations ... I think that we should not forget that in the course of the war these populations were promised national indepen dence and that the Covenant recognizes their right to be consulted.44

Syrian Palestinian Congress, August 1921, Arslan at right (League of Nations Archive, w/permission)

Figure 2.5. Syrian Palestinian Congress, August 1921, Arslan at right (League of Nations Archive, w/permission)

Drummond replied with irritation. The number of petitions was in the hundreds, and they had become increasingly pointed in their reasoning and charges. “The wishes of the inhabitants is only the concern of the mandatory power and not the council. I have continually stated that I do not think that documents such as these, which contain absurd allegations should be circulated.” 45

In August 1921 Shakib Arslan organized and convened the first Syrian Palestinian Congress with a group of ten Arab Ottoman intellectuals at a Geneva hotel. (See Figure 2.5.) Arslan timed the congress to correspond with the first meeting of the Mandate Commission in October. The ten comprised a cross-section of Ottoman Arab elites in their education, backgrounds, and sectarian diversity, including prominent Muslim religious scholars, Christian financiers, and Arslan, a politician and professional essayist. The group elected Arslan secretary, and resident representative in Geneva. The congress was funded by wealthy landowner Michael Lutfallah, and included in the Executive Rashid Rida, Ihsan al-Jabiri, Suleyman al-Kincan, and a variable list of other prominent Syrians, most of whom lived in exile in Cairo or Europe.

The 1921 meeting produced a detailed pamphlet intended for discussion at the Mandate Commission meeting. The pamphlet argued that the actions of the mandatory powers had proved the League of Nations was powerless to protect the rights of mandatory citizens, and that the mandatory states had prevented citizens from travel to attend international meetings, and placed insurmountable barriers to the free movement of information about conditions within the countries.

If the League is unable to cancel these mandates, to declare us independent and to accept us into its body as it accepted Georgia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Albania, and Armenia, which are neither more developed nor more important than we are, all we ask is to not subscribe to mandates.46

Arslan recognized that the justification for mandates was based on an unspoken racial and religious hierarchy, which qualified Christian Europeans for independence, and Muslim Arabs for rule by mandate. Yet racial hierarchies were subordinate to imperial strategy. The racia- lized theories of mandatory rule were ideologically calibrated to advance the policies and strategic imperatives of empire. The will to power came first, and the racial hierarchy was devised to legitimate it.

Shortly before the Syrian Palestinian Congress opened its conference, a delegation visited Permanent Mandates section head William Rappard. Prominent Islamic jurist and intellectual Rashid Rida led the group and did the talking but needed translation. Rappard knew the League of Nations General Secretary Eric Drummond had denied their request to address the commission, and that their pamphlet would not be read or discussed by the Mandates Council. Rappard drafted a report on the discussion, which was included in the file for the members of the Mandates Commission.

The Syrian people had great confidence in the League of Nations. The attitude of the mandatory powers in Syria and Palestine is intolerable and tends to undermine this confidence. The League of Nations should send an impartial Commission of Enquiry to the country. A representative congress of Syrians should be allowed to meet officially to discuss a form of government, and to choose the mandatory power and the content of the mandate. Otherwise the Syrian people will never be satisfied and their faith in the Covenant will disappear.

The main grievances presented were that the mandatory powers, far from seeking to establish the Syrian people as an independent nation, oppressed them in every way. They had never been consulted about the choice of the man datory, and it would soon become evident to every impartial visitor that the atti tude of the mandatory powers in Syria and Palestine was most exasperating to the great majority of the inhabitants. France was treating Syria absolutely as if she were one of her North African colonies, abrogating old laws and promulgat ing new ordinances without any regard for the wishes of the people ...

Great Britain was carrying out the Balfour Declaration and pursuing a land pol icy which was contrary to the wishes, rights, and interests of the Arab population.

The delegation insisted they deserved and could be satisfied with nothing but independence. Rappard asked why, in that case, should they present their case before the League of Nations rather than before the Powers? They claimed the “League of Nations stood for political honesty and justice.” As political exiles they had been unable to receive any kind of meaningful hearing from the mandate authorities, banned as they were, or in Paris or London. Telegrams arrived from America and elsewhere in hopeful support of the delegation. “Thousands of Syrians respectfully request your worthy support to the Syrian conference now at Geneva, Syrian national Society, Boston.”47

The first Mandates Commission meeting finally took place in October 1921. The Mandates Commission comprised nine appointees, all Europeans except for a Japanese diplomat, and all experts in colonial administration.48 Rappard’s Mandates Section was in charge of day-to-day correspondence and management at Geneva. The Mandates Commission met twice a year to review the annual mandatory reports and hear and question the “accredited representatives.”49 Drummond’s position on petitions prevailed and a detailed and tremendously complicated procedure was devised to limit petitions and curtail the ability of mandatory citizens to challenge the mandatory power or represent their countries at Geneva. Rappard’s protests went in vain, but he continued to write reports on petitions and interviews, which were entered into the Mandates Commission record and discussed.

In order to be considered worthy of submission to the Mandates Commission, petitions had to be deemed “receivable.” Receivable petitions could not contain complaints incompatible with the provisions of the mandate, be anonymous, or repeat charges covered in any other petition. Finally all petitions from inside the territory had to be submitted first to the mandate authorities. Petitions from outside could be sent directly to the League of Nations. The secretary general would acknowledge all petitions. Even if a petition was deemed “receivable,” the Mandate Commission could do no more than ask for a reply from the mandate power accredited representative on the Commission. The Mandate Commission did not have the power to investigate complaints, or require any action on the mandatory power.50

The system was designed to make self-representation by mandate citizens impossible. The requirement that petitions be submitted first to local mandate officials caused a sharp decline in correspondence. Petitioners would receive a form letter informing them that “all petitions emanating from inhabitants of mandated territories must be forwarded to the Secretariat of the League through the intermediary of the mandate Power.”51 Petitions from outside continued to arrive, however, and the Mandate Commission, and more often than not, Rappard himself, continued to ask the accredited representatives to reply to them.52 The possibility that mandate authorities would fail to forward complaints about their own administrations went unmentioned.

For most of the next two decades the system functioned and the two accredited representatives remained constant. Lord Frederick Lugard represented Britain and Count Robert de Caix represented France. Both de Caix and Lugard were experienced colonial administrators. Lugard was the architect and theorist of cost-controlled indirect colonial rule innovated in Africa, which also came to dominate in Iraq. De Caix was the secretary general of the first French Mandate regime and the architect of the French strategy of separating Syria and Lebanon into sectarian cantons or statelets, limiting the possibility of unified nationalist movements, and sponsoring Christian minorities over Muslim majorities. De Caix is mostly forgotten, but he was the single most important French colonial policy-maker during the mandate.

In mid 1922 Jamal al-Husayni, the young nephew of Musa Kazim al-Husayni, sent a lengthy petition under the imprint of the Palestinian Arab Congress. Jamal al-Husayni had attended the Syrian Protestant College (American University of Beirut since 1920), and had been educated in English. Husayni’s letter was well-written and researched and carefully argued in form and content, and made several points: The Palestine Mandate was overwhelmingly inhabited by a Muslim and Christian Arab majority. Many among the population could trace their local ancestry back centuries, and it had been an Arab country for at least 1,500 years. The population had lived under the authority of the Ottoman State for four centuries, with a high degree of local autonomy, and what Husayni termed perfect harmony and total freedom of faith, practice, and education. “The inhabitants of all races and religious beliefs participated on a basis of equality in the election of local officials and representatives.”

Jamal al-Husayni quoted from the Husayn McMahon correspondence, and argued that the British pledge to Sharif Husayn, which clearly included Palestine, preceded the Balfour Declaration, and was therefore legally binding over the Balfour Declaration. He cited the Covenant of the League of Nations, and pointed out that the Balfour Declaration was in clear contradiction to the terms of the League of Nations mandate. The mandatory power sponsored Zionist colonization against the wishes of the native inhabitants whose rights it pledged to uphold as legal guardian, in what the League charter called a “sacred trust of civilization.”53 Rappard acknowledged the letter, but it is unlikely anyone else on the Mandate Commission read the petition, since coming directly from Jerusalem, within the mandate, it would not have been “receivable.”

The petition procedure placed the indigenous inhabitants of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq at a disadvantage since they had few international advocates, while the Zionist movement, which was led by influential Europeans, had a great advantage in its ability to lobby the League and make its voice heard. And yet, a small number of former Ottoman Arabs, led over the decades by Shakib Arslan, managed a sustained effort to lobby the League of Nations from exile in Europe and elsewhere.

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