Review of R. Kolb, Commentaire sur le Pacte de la Société des Nations

Mar 5, 2016

by Steffen Rimner

This book belongs to that rare and virtuous type of scholarship which delivers more than it promises. It represents the only comprehensive study of the League of Nations Covenant since 1939 and one of the most critical guides to the foundations, activities and lessons of the League of Nations in general.[1] Although the commentary is chiefly directed at scholars and practitioners engaged in international law and international organizations, first and foremost in the orbit of U.N. agencies, historians will not regret receiving this tome of 1,410 pages as a gift to their profession, for nothing less it is. To most historians, it will be a gift from strangers. The majority of the contributors hold positions in law across universities and institutes in France, Britain, Italy, Belgium, Turkey and Germany. Of special note is Francophone Switzerland which stands out as a research hub and where the mastermind of this project, Robert Kolb, serves as Professor of International Public Law at the University of Geneva. Much to its credit, the collection eschews Eurocentric analyses, despite the contributors’ distinctly European affiliations. Given that the Asia Pacific region is currently facing challenges eerily similar to those confronted by the League of Nations, the frequent and fitting appearances of Japan and China are as welcome as they are essential.

Whereas the quality of the analyses is high throughout, the length of the chapters is more uneven. Some contributions offer succinct commentaries of a Covenant article on ten pages. Giovanni Distefano’s interpretation of Article 22 features a miniature monograph across more than 160 pages, emphasizing that the “sacred trust of civilisation” that assigned colonies to the Mandate System remains as relevant to international law and politics as it is to international history.[2] Each chapter provides a commentary on far more than the production and initial purpose of a Covenant article. The discussions assess the changing uses and the political significance of each article, with a focus on transitions to the U.N. system. All analyses draw extensively on historical literature. The bulk of referenced articles and books stems from the 1920s and 1930s. Numerous chapters connect those historical discussions to legal scholarship from the post-Cold War era. Overall, the references are dominated by the much-ignored universe of Francophone literature on the League.

This collection teaches us far more than a formalistic understanding of the twenty-six Covenant articles. Supplementary chapters discuss the League’s own documentation machinery, public opinion, juridical personality, economic and financial organization, the League’s initiatives in world health and environmental law, the protection of minorities, direct territorial administration, the pacific settlement of disputes, the legitimacy of national self-defense and peacekeeping. This panoply of international and transnational politics across the twentieth century speaks to the current concerns of global historical research. One example among many is the intersection of regionalism and global governance, illustrated by the long series of League withdrawals of Costa Rica in 1925 and Brazil in 1926, followed by Paraguay in 1935, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua in 1936, El Salvador in 1937, Venezuela in 1938, Peru in 1939 and Haiti in 1942.

The Covenant of the League of Nations, contrary to the clichés attached to the institution, has not altogether vanished from contemporary world politics. As the more than thirty contributors argue convincingly, the Covenant represented the founding document of “international organization,” a concept, we might add, that was more capacious and less “beleaguered” than the postwar idea of global governance. The negotiations over competing Covenant blueprints provided a crucial template for creating the U.N. Charter. As Florian Couveinhes-Matsumoto explains, the French Covenant proposals exerted greater influence on the U.N. Charter than on the Covenant itself (74-75). After the Second World War, initiatives in multilateral economic stabilization, crisis resolution, arbitration and elsewhere drew actively on League precedents, even if international publicity and international history has largely avoided acknowledging the historical element in policy planning and privileged instead its novelty and real-time response. By way of serving as a serious reminder of youthful aberrations, however, the League framework possesses a legacy that could be considered posthumous, if that term would not reassert the now almost proverbial, if misleading, morbidity of the institution. Even the roads not taken by the League continued to inform the contours of postwar international cooperation. Of equal significance for historians and political scientists, the critical engagement with League weaknesses by officials in Geneva, member states around the world and outsiders like the United States defy the caricature of interwar idealists blinded by their own love of international peace and harmony. Starting with the Paris Peace Conference, continuing throughout the life of the League and surviving into the U.N. era, the questions of adjudicating international justice, of ameliorating the abuse of economic and political power in a hierarchical world and of the military means necessary for international security were subject to intense, professional and protracted negotiations. The rigorous evidence conveyed in this collection does not confirm a League roused from its naïve slumber when Japan, Germany and Italy decided to take the world apart. It had been awake since its birth and remained so for years to come.

Every scholar and practitioner engaged in the study of sovereignty, international conflict and cooperation, the fragmentation of international law, human rights, global justice and a host of other problems of our time will benefit from this reference work which is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon. The fact that the only English chapter is surrounded by more than three dozen in French should not deter readers. This book offers the opportunity for scholars to break down barriers of active and passive isolationism and to recognize that international, interdisciplinary and multi-lingual cooperation is very much in their own interest, just as it was for officials at the League.