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Wednesday, 30 November 1927


Senator Sir GEORGE PEARCE (Western Australia) (Vice-President of the Executive Council) [3.13]. - I lay on the table the report of the Australian Delegation to the Eighth Assembly of the League of Nations, 5th to 27th September, 1927, and move -

That the paper be printed.

I take this opportunity to offer a few observations on the meeting of the Assembly at which I had the honour to be one of the representatives of the Commonwealth of Australia. At a time like this when the question of armaments is disturbing the minds of the whole of the civilized world it is important that we should give some consideration to the work which the League of Nations is doing. However pessimistic some people may be in regard to the League, it is to-day the only considered movement in human affairs, the only organized plan that the nations have, for the maintenance of peace. That end is so urgent that, however imperfect the organization may be, and however pessimistic we may be as to its capabilities, it is imperative that it should have our utmost sympathy, consideration and support. The opportunity I had to attend the Eighth Assembly of the League of Nations convinced me that there is in the machinery and in the covenants of the League, and in the goodwill of the nations comprising it a means to do something very definite towards the maintenance of the peace of the world. It is a fact that the League has had so far a short career, and, therefore, has not had time to acquire that prestige and power which is necessary to enable it to assert its authority in any crisis of first-class importance. But even in its short history it has already accomplished something in the way of smoothing out some of the difficulties that have occurred in Europe. That importance is attached to its deliberations is evidenced by the fact that every first-class Power in Europe was' represented by its Foreign Minister at the recent meeting of the Assembly. The Foreign Ministers of first-class powers are altogether too fully occupied in dealing with issues of supreme importance to waste their time at assemblies that in their opinion do not count. Therefore, the fact that the Foreign Ministers of all the leading European Powers not only attended the recent meeting of the Assembly, but throughout took an active part in its deliberations, to my mind indictate clearly that they attach considerable importance to the meetings of the League.

Disarmament is the great question with which the civilized nations of the world have to deal to-day. One cannot fail to be perturbed when one examines the condition of Europe and of countries outside Europe, and realizes that the signs to-day are even more unpromising than were those which disturbed the world in 1914. Unless this problem can be solved it seems to me that civilization- may become involved in a frightful cataclysm that will shake its very base. It is doubtful whether it could stand up against another cataclysm like that of 1914 to 1918. The League from its inception has been directing its attention to this question of disarmament. That it has not succeeded in finding a solution of the problem is not to be wondered at when one recalls that at the conclusion of the war the nations came together in the League with all the suspicion and hatred engendered by the terrible conflict that had raged for several years. It takes time for trust to take the place of suspicion. Some of the great nations engaged in the recent war became members of the League only a year or two ago. The last meeting of the Assembly was only the second at which Germany was represented. We have to remember also that two great Powers even to-day are outside the League. The United States of America, which, from a financial point of view may be regarded as being potentially the most powerful nation in the world to-day is still not a member. That is a strange anomaly, since the League was really the inspiration of the late Presidents Wilson. Another great Power outside the League is Russia. With these two nations outside the position is still further complicated As soon as disarmament is mentioned to any of the European Powers, the suggestion is made that disarmament must be based on security; that without security they cannot disarm, and that security is only possible by mutual guarantees of protection, and a mutual agreement to arbitrate on all questions in dispute. And so, Mr. President, the Assembly of the League in 1924 applied itself to the task of determining how it could give the nations of the earth a guarantee of security - how it could give them a guarantee that their disputes would be settled on the basis of arbitration, and that justice should take the place of force. That Assembly, as the result of its deliberations, produced what is known as the Geneva Protocol. I have to say of that Protocol that if humanity were only ready for it, it would provide a perfect system upton which the nations could function. But unfortunately we are not dealing with a perfect humanity. On the contrary, we have a very imperfect humanity. By that protocol, the great Powers were asked to give guarantees and accept obligations which they felt it was beyond their power to assume. That attitude is easily understandable by those wh'6. have some knowledge of European politics, and of the precarious position of some of the smaller States. A number or ' them only came into being after the war, and they have great military powers on their borders. One can well understand how anxious these smaller nations are to have a mutual guarantee of protection from the more powerful military nations. Therefore, we find the nations comprising the Balkan States - nations along the Russian frontier - and those comprising the Nordic group- Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark - enthusiastically in favour of the Geneva Protocol. But when we turn to the nations that would have to police that agreement, that would have to find the armaments, if they were to be found, to enforce that agreement - the nations that would have to act as the policemen of Europe, so to speak, what do we find? Take, for instance, the Empire to which we belong. Many years ago it put its signature to an agreement to guarantee the neutrality of Belgium, and when in 1914 that neutrality was invaded, the. Empire went to war to honour that guarantee. When we consider what that meant, when we remember the frightful price the Empire paid in honoring its undertaking, it is easy to understand that the British Empire would not again lightly put its name to a guarantee of the future, without being sure of its meaning, and the capacity of the Empire to give effect to it. The obligation to police the Geneva Protocol was imposed upon great Powers such as the British Empire, and naturally they hesitated to accept such a tremendous responsibility. The Protocol moreover, was open to the serious objection that it endeavoured for the first time in human history to provide machinery to define which was the aggressor nation in any conflict between two Powers. In a series of clauses it set out the means by which this was to be determined. A close study of those clauses however, showed that it was possible so to manipulate them as to make the victim appear to be the aggressor. And .so the British Government and the Government of every Dominion of the Empire, after a close and sympathetic study of the Protocol, decided that they could not accept the obligations thus sought to he imposed upon them. Nevertheless, the nations which originated these proposals and enthusiastically supported them, still held the belief that by the force of world public opinion, it would be possible practically to compel Great Britain and its Dominions to accept some such principle as that contained in the Protocol. Since 1924 they have been endeavoring to do that. At each meeting of the Assembly, attempts have been made to revive the principle. In 1926, however, after the Geneva Protocol had been definitely rejected, the nations felt that some fresh attempt should he made to explore the means by which disarma-ment might be brought about. A Preparatory Commission was therefore set up to go into technical questions as to the size of armies and navies, the fighting and financial powers of the nations, their liabilities and responsibilities, and, having examined these, to submit to the League a statement of what it regarded as the minimum force that a nation required to maintain its security. It is obvious that as a preliminary to disarmament a careful examination of all the material facts must be made. It is not sufficient to say in a rough and ready way that Britain must have an army of only 50,000,. or France an army of 100,000 men. All these questions have to be carefully weighed, with due regard to the facts. There must be a technical examination of the requirements of each nation before it is possible to determine what the strength of its armament shall be. Accordingly, the Preparatory Commission entered upon its colossal task. There was already one force operating against any progress being made by the Disarmament Commission, and that was the force exercised by those who still believed that the Geneva Protocol could be made to function. Another influence operating against it was the suspicion which still exists, particularly on the part of European Powers. Each waited for the other to make the first move. Each waited for the other to disclose its hand and say how far it was prepared to go. And so, although it was anticipated that the Preparatory Commission would be in a position to submit definite proposals to the Eighth Assembly, we found on meeting, that there were no definite proposals to put forward. On the other hand, there was an attempt to revive the principles of the Geneva Protocol. There was a full discussion at the outset, and various nations submitted resolutions bearing on the questions of arbitration, security and disarmament. In these one found many of the principles of the Geneva Protocol. The Assembly, after discussing the main principles contained in these proposals, referred them to the First and Third, Committees. I was privileged to be a member of those committees, and took part in their deliberations. The discussions were, to me, a revelation of the undercurrents that are still running in Europe. While, in the Assembly itself, the discussions proceed on more or less diplomatic lines, some very frank and plain speaking is indulged in at the various meetings of the several committees, and having heard it, one is in a better position to judge of the cross currents that affect the people of Europe. It soon became apparent that some examination of the questions of guarantees, security and arbitration must be made. It was decided, therefore. to set up another committee, to work with the Preparatory Commission during the coming twelve . months, in order to ascertain, in the light of the discussions that have taken place since the Geneva "Protocol was introduced, and in the light of the attitude taken up by- Great Britain and her dominions, whether some form of security - it may be some form of regional security such as that provided for in the Locarno Treaty-: - could be arrived at, by which nations would be encouraged to agree to a considerable measure of disarmament. The question of arbitration must also be examined.

When speaking before the Assembly and in the committees, I took the opportunity to point out that on the principle of compulsory arbitration we in Australia could speak with some experience. After all, whether we are dealing with industrial or with international affairs, we are dealing with human beings, and must take into account human passions, prejudices and obstinacy. I said then, as I say now, that compulsory arbitration in Australia in industrial matters had not been an unqualified success; and that, as a result of our experience in Australia, public opinion was turning more and more in the direction of seeking agreement by conciliation. It may be that I entirely misinterpreted public opinion in Australia, but that is the view which I hold and which I expressed at Geneva. I felt that as the Assembly was dealing with a principle with which most of its members had had little experience, it was due to me, as a representative of a country that had had some experience of it, to endeavour to interpret the opinion and experience of Australia in relation to that principle. I believe that if progress is to be made with the questions of disarmament and security, we must no longer humbug ourselves, but must take into consideration the limitations imposed on every human agreement by the deficiencies of human nature. That is true of nations as of individuals. In my opinion, the failure of the Geneva Protocol was due to the fact that it provided the best of all possible agreements for the best of all possible worlds. I . am glad to say that in its recommendations the Third Committee stressed its belief that much could be done by the application of conciliatory methods. It pointed out that the League itself provides the machinery for conciliation, and that before reference is made to arbitrary authorities, the league could do a very great deal, as it already has done, by means of conciliatory action, to get two contending nations to agree on a settlement of their differences.


Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - The power to conciliate existed before the League of Nations was constituted.


Senator Sir GEORGE PEARCE - The League of Nations provides the machinery by which conciliatory action can immediately be taken.

I desire now to say a few words about ' another question of first class importance to Australia which was dealt with at the assembly. Some time ago, under the auspices of the League, it was decided to convene an economic conference. That conference proceeded to deal with various restrictions on imports and exports. Although governments were not directly represented, the economic conference passed resolutions which were eventually sent to the several governments concerned. Those resolutions came before the Eighth Assembly of the League of Nations. The Australian delegates took the opportunity to tell the League that we in Australia regard this as a domestic question. We said that it was for every nation to decide for itself the nature of its tariff and the restrictions which should be placed on imports. We added that Australia was a young country still in the developmental stage, and that its position was entirely different from that of European countries separated only by land frontiers, more or less fully developed, and in practically the same stage of development. This question excites intense interest among the European Powers. One can understand that, living side by side, as these peoples do, with only land frontiers dividing one country from the other, these economic barriers are a source of irritation to them, leading to disputes, and even, it may be, to war. It is, however, clearly understood by the League of Nations, I think, that Australia intends to plow her own furrow in connexion with this question. I do not propose to deal further with the work of the

League. I commend the report to honorable senators, and am sure they will find it interesting.

Unfortunately, in the stress of domestic politics, we do not have an opportunity to devote sufficient attention to international affairs. Nevertheless, we are being drawn more and more into that maelstrom. We cannot avoid it, and for that reason it behoves us to give the matter some thought. I say frankly that I see certain dangers in the League of Nations. One of those dangers is the tendency to multiply the number of questions with which the League is endeavouring to deal. I am reminded of the old story of the man appointed to a position and given the assistance of an office-boy. The following week that small staff had increased to a full-blown government department. There is always a tendency on the part of those to whom a little power is given, to gather , to themselves greater power. Nations have the same tendency. One has only to look at the agenda of the League of Nations to see that many questions, which are brought forward with the best of intentions by various nations, should never come before the League. There is a danger of the League becoming the happy hunting ground of faddists. If a faddist can persuade the Government of his country to place on the agenda paper of the League of Nations some fad in, which he is interested, the time of the League of Nations, and of its committees, will be taken up in dealing with them to the detriment of questions of international concern. I do not belittle the importance of some of those questions; but they are not matters which should be dealt with by an international body such as the League of Nations. As a legacy from the previous assembly, the eighth Assembly of the League of Nations was asked to deal with a matter related to the prohibition of alcohol. I do not question the importance of the subject, but it is purely one for each country to deal with for itself. There may be, as the result of laws on the subject passed by different countries, need for legislation in regard to the international trade in alcohol. That, however, was not the point of view from which the subject was brought forward; but rather that the League should go into the whole question of alcohol. The majority of the delegates took the view that if the League of Nations was to deal with such questions, which the nations often find much difficulty in settling for themselves, it would soon become submerged by them, and there would not be time for the League to devote itself to the real purposes for which it came into existence. For that reason, notwithstanding the strong' views held by many of the delegates, the aspect of the question in relation to prohibition was practically relegated to the waste-paper basket. There is a danger that the League of Nations may be tempted to interfere in domestic affairs. Nothing will bring it to an untimely end more quickly that will its interference in the domestic affairs of its constituent nations. Should they believe that the League is interfering in matters concerning only themselves, the League's power will decline until it will go out of existence.


Senator Sir Henry Barwell - Is immigration still regarded as a . domestic question ?


Senator Sir GEORGE PEARCE - So far the League has not made any declaration in that direction, and my advice is that it should not be asked to do so at present. As to the value of the League, there can be only one opinion. Perhaps its value is best shown in that it brings together the representatives of different nations - this applies particularly to European nations - and gives them the opportunity to discuss their differences around a common table. By that means they get to understand each other's views ; they get to know and understand each other. There could be jio more striking illustration of that than the sight of the representatives of Britain, Prance and Germany conferring together on the several committees. It was an inspiring sight to see Sir Austen Chamberlain, M. Briand and Dr. Stresemann, representatatives of three great Powers, seated around the committee table, endeavouring to find a solution of the problems confronting them. No one who saw them, and the manner in which they worked to bring about agreement, could doubt their sincerity. Such gatherings are of great value, not only to the League of Nations, but also to humanity as awhole. If the meetings of the League continue to be conducted in the same spirit as pervaded the Eighth Assembly, there is hope for the future peace of the world.

When, in 1924, the Assembly passed a number of resolutions, which eventually were included in the Geneva protocol, no one drew attention to the power already existing in the Covenant of the League of Nations. It was only at the Eighth Assembly that the matter was referred to. Although there was power to call together the Council of the League in the case of an international crisis, until the Eighth Assembly no thought had been given as to how that should be done. One has only to visualize a dispute in Europe to appreciate the difficulties which might arise. Representatives on the Council of the League of Nations might be members of the belligerent Powers. Moreover, they might have to pass through the country of a belligerent. Notwithstanding these difficulties, no machinery had been provided for the members of the Council to get together, and unless they did get together there was no means of intervening in any dispute. Proposals were made to deal with these difficulties. Some of them were adopted; others are still under consideration. The Eighth Assembly of the League was a working Assembly. It had no illusions. It did not seek the ideal, because it knew that it was impossible of attainment. It tried to find out what was the next step that should be taken, and to sincerely and earnestly take that step. I believe that the League has taken it. I believe that peace can be maintained, if the work now proceeding can be brought to fruition, as I think it will be, so that the next Assemblywill be able to deal with practical issues, such as the reduction of armaments, and, side by side with that, give to those nations that tremble for their safety some guarantee of security - a guarantee that their genuine differences will be settled not by force or fear, but by justice - we shall be appreciably nearer the time when we can say that peace has arrived. In any case I say to the Senate that anything that Australia can do to help the League, to stimulate interest in it, should be done. Finally, I express the hope that at every Assembly of the League Australia will be fully and adequately represented. I hope that we shall send to its gatherings the biggest minds that we can spare. If the League dies it will be by the actions of small men. It needs the biggest men the world can find to solve the biggest problems that the world has on its hands to-day.

Debate (on motion by Senator Needham) adjourned.







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