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40 Minutes of Thirteenth Meeting of Principal Delegates to Imperial Conference

E (PD) (37) 13 (extracts) LONDON, 4 June 1937


Anthony Eden opened the discussions by stating that 'the views of
members of the League differed very widely as to the course to be
adopted, and that 'it would seem, therefore, necessary to proceed
slowly and cautiously in the matter'. It was necessary to avoid a
split between those who would introduce more binding sanctions and
those who would delete all sanctions from the Covenant. Eden also
favoured separating the Covenant from the Treaty of Versailles,
and working towards the ideal of maximum universality in the

Prime Minister W. Mackenzie King said 'Canada did not consider
that the League could advance peace by putting its reliance on
force; that commitments in advance to the use of sanctions would
not be observed in future as they had not been in several familiar
instances, in the past; that the League should not be turned into
a League against Fascism or a League against Communism; that there
was a great work to be done by the League in the field of
mediation and conciliation, enquiry into grievances and social and
economic advancement . . .' He also said that Canada 'had never
sought to press its views upon any other Commonwealth Government'.

MR CASEY said that the views of the Government of the Commonwealth
of Australia would be stated by Mr Bruce, who was specially
qualified to speak on this subject from his long experience of

MR BRUCE said that the views of the Commonwealth of Australia had
been made clear at the meeting of the Assembly in September, 1936.

[1] At the outset one very important issue must be faced. Ought we
now to attempt to re-cast the whole basis of the League and
drastically to redraft the Covenant or would it be better to leave
the position as it was and to define by interpretative action more
clearly what are the obligations of States Members of the League?
In the view of the Commonwealth Government the proper course to
adopt was the second of these alternatives. To attempt a drastic
redrafting of the Covenant would inevitably disrupt the League and
bring it to an end. It should be remembered that the founders of
the League and the framers of the Covenant had based their work on
the assumption that the League would be universal and would have
at its disposal overwhelming authority and force. Looked at from
this angle there was little to criticise either in the League or
in the Covenant and if to-day we had to attempt to construct a new
League and frame a new Covenant on these same assumptions of
universality and overwhelming force we should probably find that
we should use very much the same language as had been used in

Experience, however, had shown that the failure of the League to
realise universality had completely altered the position in
various respects and particularly in regard to the employment of
sanctions. It was no exaggeration to say that in a League which
was not universal the application against a powerful aggressor of
force of any kind had been shown to be in fact impracticable. In
this respect the case of Abyssinia was a good example in that it
showed that in practice it was impossible to draw any hard and
fast distinction between economic and military sanctions. It was
now generally recogniscd that the imposition of economic sanctions
might well result in war and that therefore States would not
venture to impose economic sanctions unless they were prepared to
carry their policy to its logical conclusion and to reinforce
their economic sanctions by military sanctions with all the
consequences which must inevitably ensue.

Australia favoured the separation of the Covenant from the Treaty
of Versailles. With regard to Article 11 Australia thought that
the Council should be given greater latitude so as to enable it to
make recommendations under the first paragraph of Article 11
without the consent of the States in controversy. This would
enable the League to intervene more effectively in the earlier
stages of disputes. The great advantage of so doing would be that
it would create the possibility of our conciliatory efforts taking
place before the dispute had reached such a point that it was
almost impossible for those concerned in it to retire from the
positions they had taken up.

As regards Article 16 the position was that the strict letter of
that Article was now inoperative. Australia desired that the
existing practice should be recognised and put beyond question.

This practice dated from the Resolution of the Assembly of the 4th
October, 1921. In the Abyssinian dispute the provisions of Article
16 requiring the application of automatic sanctions were not given
effect to. Instead of the automatic imposition of sanctions full
consultation took place after which sanctions upon which there had
been general agreement were applied. This procedure was in accord
with paragraph 4 of the Assembly Resolution of 1921 and Australia
would like to see this paragraph embodied in the Covenant, but
recognises that action to this end is at the present moment
impracticable. The Australian Government also thought that the
League Committee should consider the possibility, should any
circumstance likely to endanger the peace of the world be brought
to the notice of the Council, of calling together the States
members of the League for the purpose of their considering their
attitude towards the dispute and determining whether in the event
of a country which appeared to be embarking upon aggression
persisting in its intentions they would be prepared to take some
action on a co-operative basis before the contemplated aggression
had actually become an act of aggression. He was satisfied that if
there could be this general meeting of the members of the League
for purposes of consultation, far more satisfactory results would
emerge than could possibly be looked for from the adoption of any
policy of sanctions. Apart from other considerations it should be
borne in mind that as the result of recent experiences nations
were quite ready to consult together, and even to take action,
provided that by doing so they ran no risk of involving themselves
in hostilities. He urged, therefore, that Article 16 as
interpreted by paragraph 4 of the 1921 Resolution, should be
accepted and that, in addition, provision should be made for an
immediate meeting of all the members of the League to consult
together and to determine what, if any, action should be taken.

The Australian Government agreed generally with the views of the
Government of the United Kingdom as to the utility of regional
pacts, though care must be taken to safeguard ourselves against
such pacts developing into mere military alliances, which were
such a menace to the world in former days.

As regards Article 19 Australia thought that it was unwise that
this Article remained to all intents and purposes inoperative. The
League could not possibly succeed if it was to be turned unto an
instrument for the maintenance of the status quo at any given
time. Article 19 which was an article for the remedying of
grievances-one of the fundamental objects of the League-should be
made operative. In conclusion Mr Bruce, after summarising the
views of the Australian Delegation on the points he had mentioned,
expressed the opinion that if we could proceed on the lines he had
suggested there would be a very good prospect of securing the co-
operation of the United States and other Powers at present outside
the League.

[Prime Minister Savage of New Zealand said he was opposed to
'abandoning ... the substance for the shadow. He wondered what
guarantee there was that we could secure the moral support of
nations now outside the League if we weakened the Covenant in the
ways that had been suggested.']

MR CHAMBERLAIN enquired what view the New Zealand Delegation took
of Mr Bruce's suggestion that while Article 16 of the Covenant
should not be altered it should be agreed that the Article should
be interpreted as set out in Paragraph 4 of the Assembly
Resolution of 4th October, 1921. Under this interpretation there
would be no obligation on a Member of the League automatically to
apply sanctions, but there would be an obligation to consult with
all the other Members of the League on what should be done.

MR SAVAGE thought that the difficulty about this suggestion was
that if it was contemplated that, as a result of the consultation,
a unanimous decision would have to be reached, no action would, in
fact, ever be taken because it would be impossible to secure

MR BRUCE said that this was not what was contemplated. For
example, in the case of Abyssinia, sanctions had been imposed
although a unanimous decision in favour of the imposition of
sanctions had not been secured.

MR SAVAGE said that he saw no objection in these circumstances to
the consultation proposed.

MR CHAMBERLAIN pointed out that such consultation would give an
opportunity of finding out in advance how far other nations were
prepared, if at all, to take action. Unless this could be
ascertained in advance the consequences to those Powers who fully
implemented the provisions of the Covenant by taking the action
might be embarrassing.

MR SAVAGE agreed. In his opinion it was very important to know in
advance what the other countries were prepared to do in the way of
imposing sanctions against an aggressor.

[General Hertzog took a quite contrary view to Savage. 'It was
surely very illogical to want to give to an institution which had
failed satisfactorily to make use of much smaller powers, the
greater powers which this proposal contemplated. The only result
of such a proceeding would be a widespread loss of confidence in
the authority and prestige of the League ... There was a very
great deal to be said for Mr Bruce's suggestion . . . because it
rendered unnecessary the reconstruction of the League and the re-
drafting of the Covenant ... The only question was to what extent
other nations could be persuaded to agree to what was now
proposed. In this he feared that there might be a great deal of
difficulty . . .' The course he thought should be pursued 'was to
concentrate on those activities of the League in which the League
had been useful and effective, and as time went on to see how
these activities could be gradually expanded and enlarged . . .'
Sir Zafrullah Khan referred to public opinion in India which was
likely to approve only of a reduction of India's contribution. He
added that he was 'not in possession of the Government of India's
detailed views on specific aspects of League Reform. He knew,
however, that his Government would welcome any accession of
strength to the League'.

Eden said he thought the discussion had been 'very valuable', and
paid tribute to Bruce's 'brilliant analysis of the present
situation of the League', with which analysis he 'found himself in
agreement with practically every point ... In brief, the outcome
of the discussions was that we must keep an international
authority in being to regulate our disputes. Its machinery had to
be overhauled, and there was fairly general agreement that this
could best be done on the general lines suggested by Mr Bruce.']

MR MACKENZIE KING raised a question as to whether under the 1921
Resolutions or the procedure followed in the Abyssinian case
members were free to decide whether or not to apply sanctions. He
understood that under those precedents it was for each member to
decide whether the Covenant had been broken, but if it agreed it
had been broken, that member was required to apply sanctions. If
so, it would not be easy to bring in some of the States now

MR BRUCE said that in the Abyssinian case the procedure of the
automatic application of extensive sanctions under Article 16 was
not employed, but the interpretation of the 1921 Resolution was
adopted and full consultation took place as to what sanctions
should be employed.

As a result of the experience in the Abyssinian case, Mr Bruce
stated that he was convinced that members of the League now
recognised that economic sanctions were not automatically applied
but would be the subject matter of consultation with a view to co-
operative action. He added that if there was the slightest doubt
as to this being the interpretation now put on Article 16 it was
essential that the point should be cleared up, as any suggestion
that there was any obligation for the automatic application of
sanctions would be a bar to the entry into the League of the
nations at present outside it, particularly the United States of

He did not think that anybody who had sat at Geneva, as he had,
throughout the whole of the Abyssinian discussions would deny that
this change of atmosphere had taken, place.

The League in fact had learnt by experience, and it would now be a
mistake to go back to the earlier assumptions. There would
certainly be no hope of getting the United States into the League
on the earlier basis.

1 Not printed.

Last Updated: 11 September 2013
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