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United Nations: III. The League Of Nations Mandates
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Posted on December 17, 2001

Arab nationalism and Great Power plans

Nationalist aspirations in the Arab world, including Palestine, were ascendant when the war ended. One of the foremost authorities on Middle Eastern affairs, Professor J. C. Hurewitz, writes:

"The demise of the Ottoman Empire, in fact, 'resolved' the Eastern question. Yet while Britain and France inherited the political controls they significantly did not annex Near and Middle East territory outright. Mandates and preferential alliances were no more than provisional arrangements, and the presence of the Western Powers in various guises stimulated the growth of local nationalism dedicated to the early realization of full sovereignty." 40/

A major question facing the victorious European Powers was the political status of territories and peoples formerly under Ottoman rule. Of President Wilson's "Fourteen Points" outlining the framework of the peace agreements to be negotiated, the one dealing with self-determination was directly applicable to Palestine:

"The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development ..."

The Allied Powers, however, decided at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 to bring these territories under the mandates system introduced by the Covenant of the League of Nations, signed on 28 June 1919, as an integral part of the Treaty of Versailles which concluded peace with Germany.

The Covenant of the League of Nations

The League of Nations was a body sui generis, established by an unprecedented agreement by the victorious States of the post-war world to establish their concept of order in international relations. The place of the colonies ruled by the victorious States and the territories detached from the defeated States was a special problem in this order.

Colonialism then was still part of the international system, although President Wilson's programme, a liberal landmark in the development of anti-colonialism, acknowledged that the concept of the right of self-determination applied equally to the non-Western part of humanity:

"A free, open-minded and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the Government whose title is to be determined."

The League of Nations, designed to respond to the prevailing order, adopted the mandates concept, an innovation in the international system, as a way to accommodate the demands of the colonial age with the moral and political need to acknowledge the rights of the colonized.

Article 22 (full text at Annex IV) of the Covenant established the Mandates System, founded on the concept of the development of such territories under the "tutelage ... of advanced nations" formed "a sacred trust of civilization". The degree of tutelage was to depend on the extent of political maturity of the territory concerned. The most developed would be classified as 'A' Mandates, the less developed as 'B', and the least developed as 'C'.

The character of the Arab peoples, themselves inheritors of an ancient and advanced civilization, could not but be recognized, and the clauses directly applied to Arab lands as class 'A' Mandates read:

"Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory."

Palestine was in no manner excluded from these provisions.

The allocation of Arab territories

Article 22 laid down no rules for the selection of the Mandatory Powers or for the distribution of mandates between them. Turkey and Germany were simply made to renounce their claims to sovereignty over the territories whose distribution was to be decided by the Allied Powers. Germany's divestiture of titles was codified in the Treaty of Versailles (article 119). In the case of Turkey, such renunciation was provided for in the Treaty of Sevres of 1920 (article 132) but, since that treaty never came into force, the renunciation of Turkish claims over non-Turkish territories was formalized in the Treaty of Lausanne. The treaties of Versailles and of Lausanne contained explicit provisions empowering the Allied Powers to apportion the "freed" territories as their mandates.

The former German territories were allotted by a decision of the Supreme Council of the Allied Powers on 7 May 1919, shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The former Turkish territories, however, were divided at the Conference of San Remo on 25 April 1920, while a legal state of war with Turkey still existed, three years before the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne. The administration of Syria and Lebanon was awarded to France, and that of Palestine and Transjordan and of Mesopotamia (Iraq) to Great Britain.

The working of the Mandates System

All the mandates over Arab countries, including Palestine, were treated as class 'A' Mandates, applicable to territories whose independence had been provisionally recognized in the Covenant of the League of Nations. The various mandate instruments were drafted by the Mandatory Powers concerned but subject to the approval of the League of Nations.

The mandate for Iraq, while in the process of being drafted, was amended to provide for the signature of a treaty between Britain and Iraq, which was concluded in 1922. This was supplemented by further agreements, all approved by the League as meeting with the requirements of article 22 of the Covenant. Iraq obtained formal independence on 3 October 1932.

The Mandate for Syria and Lebanon did not provide for any special treatment as in the case of Iraq. Both territories were governed under the full control of France until the Mandate was terminated. Lebanon achieved full independence on 22 November 1943 and Syria on 1 January 1944.

Palestine and Transjordan (as it was then called) were included in the same Mandate but treated as distinct territories. Article 25 of the Palestine Mandate empowered Great Britain to withhold, with the League's approval, the implementation of any provision of the Mandate in Transjordan. On the request of the British Government the Council of the League, on 16 September 1922, passed a resolution effectively approving a separate administration for Transjordan. This separate administration continued until the territory attained independence as the Kingdom of Jordan on 22 March 1946.

Only in the case of Palestine did the Mandate, with its inherent contradictions, lead not to the independence provisionally recognized in the Covenant, but towards conflict that was to continue six decades later.


40/ Hurewitz, Op. cit., pp. xvi-xvii.

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