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The End of the League of Nations Mandates

The last two meetings of the Mandates Commission took place in Geneva in 1939, in June and December. The final meeting was brief and poorly attended and the Commission noted that present circumstances (the German invasion of Poland and the European declarations of war), made it impossible to schedule further meetings. Everyone knew the League of Nations had passed into final irrelevance. The grand buildings on the shores of Lake Geneva emptied, the staff scattered to the winds by the world war. The Axis soon surrounded neutral Switzerland.

The second-to-last meeting, by contrast, in June 1939, was long and detailed and focused on the effective end of the French Mandate over Syria and Lebanon, and the end of the British Mandate for Palestine. Shakib Arslan, an exile once again, was still denied an invitation to speak, but mandate citizens had finally been convinced of the futility of reasoned appeals to justice. Petitions still arrived, but the leading intellectuals and political figures had long given up on Geneva.

The British government sent Colonial Secretary McDonald to explain the practical renunciation of the Balfour Declaration and the mandate itself. In keeping with British practice, McDonald delivered a lengthy speech to the Commission that echoed closely the 400-page-long Peel Commission Report. Rappard asked how the mandate proposed to reconcile the contradictory promises of the Balfour Declaration. McDonald argued that they had not been promises exactly, or what had once been understood as promises. Rappard pointed out that the “Commission had always done its best to approve the actions of the Mandatory Power and had been almost acrobatic in its attempts to agree with fluctuations in policy.”14 Nevertheless, “M. Rappard could not help finding very great difficulty.” He noted that the British government could hardly claim its pledges to uphold the “civil and religious rights of the existing [Arab] communities” made it now necessary to seek the approval of the Arabs for Jewish immigration when the Arabs had never been consulted before, and in fact had been entirely consistent during the previous twenty years in their opposition to the Balfour Declaration, the mandate, and Jewish immigration. Rappard noted in 1939 the Arabs desired the same they had desired in 1918: liberty and independence in their own



McDonald admitted that from the perspective of 1939, the British government could only defend the Jewish National Home by massive and continual military force against the resistance not only of the Palestinian Arabs but of the Arabs generally. Overthrowing Yasin al-Hashimi’s government and repressing the Palestine Revolt had failed to eliminate opposition. Conciliating the Arabs, and thus protecting the empire, was suddenly more important than the conciliation (or by implication, the survival) of European Jews.16 The equation had been the reverse in 1917.

The Commission was concerned with the fate of European Jews. Thousands had fled Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia penniless and under the most difficult circumstances, often in leaky boats at the mercy of smugglers. McDonald expressed his sympathy, but not all were equally worthy of sympathy; “many came from Poland, and Roumania and were not refugees at all.” The British government could hardly allow every ship full of illegal migrants to disembark in Palestine.17 The Commission did not discuss evacuation of European Jewish refugees to Britain or some other country. The Commission knew they were unwelcome in Britain.

In the following days, the Commission turned to the Syrian and Lebanese mandates. William Rappard and Robert de Caix represented the Mandates Commission and France respectively, as they had at the first Mandates Commission meeting seventeen years earlier in 1921. De Caix had been the first secretary general of the mandate in Syria and Lebanon and the original architect of its sectarian legal and political structures, but in 1939 he smoothly explained that changing circumstances made it necessary to ignore the previous two decades of official policy and his own theories about Oriental minorities, claims to be the protector of the Eastern Christians, and governing the mandates. Rappard questioned de Caix with his customary energy and incisiveness over the aborted treaty, and the abandonment of the Sanjaq.

Robert de Caix addressed the French failure to ratify the treaties with Syria and Lebanon. He attributed the Senate’s refusal to old worries about the minorities and new fears arising from the changed security situation.18 He alluded to an unstable political atmosphere in Paris. Rappard, jousting once again with de Caix, wanted to know exactly why the minorities needed the protection of France. And why was the democratic process not enough to ensure their voice and rights? De Caix had become an advocate of Syrian unity and yet he had been the architect of minority fragmentation. But France, like Britain, found endless engagement in the Middle East an unappealing and dangerous prospect, and so the calculation had changed. Both British and French Mandate officials complained bitterly of their costly sacrifice in the mandates, and de Caix himself had remarked before the Commission that “Syria, with the outlay involved, was not really a paying proposition.”19

The Commission came to the matter of Alexandretta and Rappard noted that he had received the thankless task of rapporteur for all the Sanjaq petitions. His efforts led him to assert that ceding the territory to Turkey was a “flagrant violation of article 4 of the mandate,” which clearly prohibited mandate powers from ceding or leasing any part of the land under mandate.20 Robert de Caix deflected deftly and attributed the renunciation of the mandate to a threatening international scene. Such matters were beyond their control and there was really nothing more to be said. The Commission closed its final session on the Middle East mandates by agreeing unanimously that both the McDonald White paper on Palestine and the ceding of Alexandretta violated the terms of the League of Nations Mandate charter.21 Rappard was characteristically to the point when he addressed Alexandretta:

The guardian, in an interest which was essentially his own, had abandoned to a third party a part of the ward’s inheritance, after having been entrusted with its defense. [M. de Caix] would certainly say that what had been done was in the interest of the ward ... but it would require all the gifts and persuasive talents of M. de Caix to make one believe that there had not been a violation of the mandate.22

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