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Wednesday, 30 September 1936


Senator Sir GEORGE PEARCE (Western Australia) (Minister for External Affairs) [3.13].- &y have- With the constitutional development of the dominions and the rapid increase in recent years of their status in international affairs, the formulation of a common foreign policy, commanding the confidence and support, of all members of the British 'Common wealth of Nations, becomes increasingly desirable. In this respect, the League of Nations and the principles embodied in the Covenant have provided a focal point for a joint British Commonwealth policy, and lately the declared policy of each individual member of the British Commonwealth has been based on League principles involving collective action, arbitration, conciliation and peace. These principles, world-wide in their scope, hare facilitated a consistent and uniform outlook for the British peoples.

Unfortunately, the events of the last twelve months, more particularly in relation to the Italo-Abyssinian dispute, have, it must be admitted, tended to weaken the prestige and authority of the' League, and, in consequence an examination of the whole League system becomes imperative.

Honorable senators will remember tl.at on the 18th June., in declaring the Commonwealth policy in regard to the raising of sanctions, the Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) also indicated the Government's views on the need for this examination.

On the 4th July the League Assembly adopted a recommendation of the Council that the States Members of the League should put forward any proposals they might, wish to make to improve the application of the principles of the Covenant. The Commonwealth Government immediately began a careful examination of various suggestions for a reform of the Covenant in the light of recent experience. The matter was considered one of such great importance as to demand the most careful study and consideration ; moreover, the 'Government felt that, in view of the widely conflicting opinions about League reform which had been expressed, not only at Geneva, but also within the individual States themselves, the meeting of the League Assembly at Geneva in the last week of September would be the earliest desirable time for announcing its proposals. The High Commissioner, Mr. Bruce, will accordingly state the views of the Commonwealth Government at to-day's sitting of the Assembly.

Of the numerous conflicting opinions on League reform which we have examined. T first mention the two extremes. On the one hand are the views of those who urge a tightening-up of the obligations under the coercive articles of the Covenant, particularly in respect, of their automatic application, and including not only financial and economic, sanctions, such as were applied against Italy, but also military sanctions. At the other extreme are the opinions of those who would weaken the obligations by eliminating all coercive and repressive articles from the Covenant; in other words, those who would rely on the League as a consultative body and as a purely moral force. As I indicated in a recent statement, the Commonwealth Government has endeavoured to avoid both of these extremes, believing that the urging of either view might well bring about the end of the League.

After careful consideration the Government has decided to make the following suggestions for League reform, through the delegation at the preesnt meeting of the Assembly: -

The first proposal relates to Article XVI., which deals with sanctions. That article provides that in the event of a resort to war in violation of previous articles of the Covenant, States Members of the League are bound to apply immediately and automatically certain sanctions severing financial, economic and personal intercourse with the State which has been declared to have broken the Covenant. The effect of the article was, however, subsequently modified in practice by the adoption by the Assembly in October, 1921, of a long series of "Resolutions concerning the Economic Weapon." These interpretative resolutions, as they become known, were to constitute rules for guidance, mainly procedural in character, as to how the obligations of States under Article XVI. were to be discharged. They were actually followed in the Italo-Abyssinian dispute. Article XVI. also provides for military sanctions, which, however, are permissive and not mandatory in character, as it is the duty of the Council only to recommend to States Members what effective armed forces shall be contributed to protect the Covenant. "With regard to financial and economic sanctions, the Government feels that, upon a declaration by the Council that a Member State is anaggressor, the following sanctions should be automatic : -

(a)   Prohibition of export of arms and munitions of war of all descriptions ;

(b)   Prohibition of export of raw materials used for military operations and manufacture of war material including metals and oil; or alternatively to (a) and (b) -

Prohibition of all exports to the aggressor State;

(c)   Refusal of all loans and credits facilities;

(d)   Prohibition of all imports from the aggressor State.

With the exception of the prohibition of oil exports, (a), (i), (c), and to a substantial extent (d), were the main sanctions, which were applied in the recent Abyssinian dispute, and according to the statistics collated by the Co-ordination Committee, had a constant and cumulative effect on Italian economic life. They were, however, not long enough in operation for their effect to be decisive. The Commonwealth Government feels that if a would-be aggressor knows beforehand that in the event of aggression, he will automatically become subject to these financial and economic sanctions, such knowledge will constitute a powerful deterrent in the interests of peaceful settlement of the dispute.

The Government fully realizes that in a democracy there will be objections by reason of the Government of the day having to carry out a national obligation if it has had no say in its acceptance. It therefore proposes to recommend the incorporation into the Covenant of No. 4 of the interpretative resolutions of 1921.

The resolution is as follows: -

It is the duty of each Member of the League to decide for itself whether a breach of the Covenant has been committed. The fulfilment of their duties under article16 is required from Members of the League by the express terms of the Covenant, and they cannot neglect them without breach of their Treaty obligations.

With regard to military sanctions, the Government feels that no amendment of the Covenant is necessary, as these are not automatic, but are subject to recommendation by the Council, and the adoption of any recommendation is left to the individual government's decision.

The Commonwealth Government also believes that an effective contribution to the general principle of collective security contained in the League would be for States, in regions where their national interests are directly involved., to agree to some form of regional pact, subsidiary to the Covenant, by which they would be obliged to render military assistance, in circumstances laid down by the agreement, if one or more of them should be attacked by an aggressor.

Article XVI., it is believed, forms a reasonable basis for such agreements, which would be devised to strengthen general security, and would also be strictly within the framework of the League, and subject to the spirit and provisions of the Covenant. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that such agreements must be supplementary to, and not in substitution for, any of the vital provisions of the Covenant.

Furthermore, the Government's view is that, so far as the Commonwealth is concerned, the Pacific is the area in which we are most vitally interested in the maintenance of peace. With the United States of America and Japan outside the League, provision for a regional agreement of the particular kind mentioned could hardly be applicable, but the promotion of a regional understanding and pact of non-aggression for Pacific countries, in the spirit of the League undertakings, should not be beyond the bounds of possibility.

The second Commonwealth proposal is with regard to Article XI., which declares that any war or threat of war between Members or non-Members is a matter of concern to the whole League, and lays down that " the League shall take any action that may be deemed wise and effectual to safeguard the peace of nations ". As it stands at present, Article XI. is subject to theunanimity rule, and mediatory action by the Council can be blocked by the votes of States which are parties to the dispute, or by the vote of a State contemplating aggression. The Government feels that the Council should be enabled to make recommendations under Article XI. without the consent of the States who are parties to the dispute; this will involve consequential amendment of Article V.. which deals with questions of procedure.

The third proposal is with regard to Article XIX., which provides that the Assembly may, from time to time, advise the reconsideration by Members of the League of treaties which have become inapplicable, and the consideration of international conditions whose continuance might endanger the peace of the world. The Commonwealth Government's view is that in a world with rapidly-changing conditions this article is too uncertain. It believes that Article XIX. should be regarded as a specific article for the remedying of grievances, and that provision should be made for periodical investigation of, and report on. alleged grievances.

Fourthly, the Commonwealth Government feels that support should be given to a proposal for the severance of the Covenant from the Peace Treaty of 1919. If the League is to become universal, and to act as an instrument for the preservation of peace, rather than be linked to a period of past history which directly concerned only a certain number of Member States, then the Covenant should be divorced from the Treaty of Versailles.

Finally, the Government is of opinion that before proceeding to deal at all with amendments to the Covenant, the League should consider inviting nonMember States to confer with it or any commission which it might set up to consider the proposed reform, as tothe nature and form of desirable amendments. The Government feels that the nonMember States, and in particular the United States of America, Germany, and Japan, should be fully consulted, with a view to having their representatives present to discuss the proposals with Members of the League. Such a course, it is felt, would give to non-Member States a full opportunity to state their views as to what ultimate form of Covenant would be acceptable. If unanimity on the proposal to hold such a consultation can be secured, we believe that there will be a reasonable chance of obtaining a Covenant of a kind which would bring about universal membership, without which the League cannot fulfil the functions which its framers originally contemplated, and which are so essential to the peace and security of a troubled world.

I lay the statement on the table of the Senate, and move -

Thatthe paper he printed.

Debate (on motion by Senator Collings) adjourned.







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