Young and Stateless: Child Rights, Refugees, and the League of Nations, 1924–40

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:40 AM
Columbia Hall 6 (Washington Hilton)
Emily Baughan, University of Bristol and Columbia University
In 1924, all League of Nations member states signed the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, the first statement of individual rights to be promulgated by an intergovernmental organisation. This paper explores League of Nations Child Welfare Committee – a body founded to uphold the Child Rights Declaration – and their schemes for stateless children. The Committee sought to resettle stateless children in eastern European states seeking to expand their populations, arguing that such resettlement would benefit both the children and their host states. In line with the British liberal political and philanthropic tradition from which the leaders of the Committee were drawn, child rights were understood in a communitarian sense; children were only thought able to fulfil their human potential through service to a wider community.

It was thus claimed that resettled children – separated from their parents and stripped of their original nationalities – would benefit the states that raised them by becoming productive citizens. Some children, consequently, were deemed more valuable than others. Ultimately, League bodies and philanthropic organisations operating from these assumptions made little attempt in the later 1930s to rescue or resettle children deemed ‘burdensome’ by the Nazi state. My paper thus shows the influence of Victorian liberal thought upon interwar child rights discourses, and the way in which such rights discourses could actually dovetail with nationalist, and even fascist, agendas.