League of Nations (Council and Assembly).

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 21st November 1939.

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Photo of Mr Philip Noel-Baker Mr Philip Noel-Baker , Derby

A few months ago the Under-Secretary told the House that the Government were engaged in rebuilding the League of Nations on a new and more solid foundation. I think the proposal he is going to make to-night is a grim commentary on the claim which he then made. It is the end of a chapter in the history of human effort for order and peace, and an end which is symbolic of the loss of chances in the last eight years. The Under-Secretary is going to defend the proposal that, in effect, there shall be no Assembly. Although there is a war in progress, a war which is being fought for every principle on which the League was founded, yet we cannot use the tribunal of the Assembly to state the reasons why we have taken up arms or the conditions on which we shall lay them down. To me such a decision is a confession of moral defeat. It means the loss of what I think might have been a great opportunity. I understand that at another stage there was another proposal, that a meeting of the Assembly should be held but on condition that no topic of political importance should be mentioned. I am bound to say that I think this decision is a great deal better than that. The idea of an Assembly which could not even mention the great war that was in progress while it was sitting would have made the authors of the Covenant turn in their graves. They would have been utterly revolted by the conception of a neutralised League, which seems to be so generally accepted at the present time.

But I have no reason to dwell on what has been decided. Rightly or wrongly the decision has been taken, and we have to make the best of it. I want to put a few questions about what the Assembly is going to do, and what I hope it is not going to do, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to give us specific assurances on the various points. The Under-Secretary will not be surprised to hear me mention the word "Palestine." I hope he will be able to give me a pledge that His Majesty's Government will not try to force through this bastard Assembly the White Paper and that he will not try to secure its assent to the policy contained in the White Paper on Palestine, of last summer.

We remember the circumstances in which that Paper was prepared and the report upon it by the Mandates Commission of the League. It would be playing fast and loose with the sacred principle of the sanctity of international obligations for which we are fighting in this war to endeavour to do any such thing. It would cause a shock throughout the world, and not the least in the United States of America, and would still further damage our moral credit there. The hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) asked for a pledge that the Government would do all in their power to ensure that the Budget of the League would not be cut away to nothing. If the Government are serious in their declaration that they have made of our purpose in the war, they should strive, not for a diminution but for an actual extension of the work which the League are doing in economic and social questions. I do not need to remind the Under-Secretary of the importance of the report which was prepared last August by the Bruce Committee. That remarkable report consists of a discussion of the inevitability of increased contact among nations in the modern world, and it explains, with irresistible logic that there must be a further development and extension of economic and social co-operation between Governments if the prosperity of the peoples of the world is to be promoted. It ends with a proposal for the creation of a central committee for economic and social questions, to consist primarily of Members of the League. By this committee the help and co-operation of non-Members would be sought.

It is plain that when this war comes to an end there will be urgent need for economic co-operation of the kind with which the Bruce Committee dealt. We shall certainly be face to face, when the fighting is over and the production of munitions comes to a sudden stop, with the most serious economic crisis that the modern world has ever known. That can be dealt with only by an international plan. Why cannot the Assembly now create a central committee such as the report proposes and charge that committee with doing everything in its power to deal with the crisis by which we know the war is bound to be followed. That work could be entrusted to the I.L.O., and the economic and financial sections of the League would of course be brought into it. If they were to set about preparing plans now, with the assistance which they could obtain from many countries, their work might be twice as valuable when the peace conference meets.

I do not think that proposal is at all impractical. Its cost would be trifling and it would be warmly welcomed by many other countries, including the United States. Not long ago it was quoted in this report of the Bruce Committee that the United States Secretary of State, Mr. Cordell Hull, wrote a letter to the Secretary-General, in which he said: The League of Nations has been responsible for the development of mutual exchange and discussion of ideas and methods to a greater extent and in more fields of humanitarian and scientific endeavour than any other organisation in history. I venture to think that the co-operation of the United States of America might be obtained in this work, and I hope His Majesty's Government will set it on foot.

With regard to the question of the Court of International Justice, which was referred to by the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton, the question which arises is not that of the election of a single judge but of the election of a whole court. The Mandate is due to end this year. When I asked whether proposals were considered for dealing with this difficulty, the Under-Secretary answered, as I understood him, that no proposals had been made. Some solution is urgently required. It would be madness to allow the court to disappear—a court which, as the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton said, has been the most successful single organ of the League, and not only that but the organ which is bound to be the keystone of the whole system. An attempt to re-elect the whole court this year would not result in a very satisfactory selection. I believe the jurists ought to be able to find some means by which the present Mandate of the court could be extended for a year or two by general agreement. I hope the Under-Secretary will assure us with the thought that His Majesty's delegation will not allow the court to disappear.