International Society by Law: Mandates, Minorities, and Non-States in Interwar International Law

Monday, January 5, 2015: 8:50 AM
Concourse H (New York Hilton)
Natasha Wheatley, Columbia University
By the end of the interwar years, a consensus was forming among international lawyers that the subjects and objects of international law could no longer be taken for granted. Various innovations of the League system – not least the ascription of an international legal status to minorities and mandate peoples – had unsettled the assumption that states represented the only units “visible” to international law. The petition procedures developed in both oversight regimes further sparked debate about the international legal capacity of the individual. To whom or what could international rights and duties – that is, international legal personality – accrue? In charting assessments of the significance of these procedural and conceptual changes, this paper will focus on the way individuals under both mandates and minorities treaties used this newfound legal standing to open up new spaces for debate and claim-making. It recovers this political zone as a particular international public sphere housed within the League’s jurisdiction.

Historians have paid scant attention to the idea of the League’s jurisdiction, yet it seemed extremely important to petition writers, who carefully invoked the League’s responsibility for their plight. It represented a way around the state’s monopoly on international representation, allowing a plurality of voices within the halls of international organization. The development of that jurisdiction bore the imprint of empire. In both oversight regimes, the League directly tackled questions of “post”-empire by partially limiting and internationalizing sovereignty in the wake of imperial collapse. In these regions, along the “international frontier” (Hall), that allotment of withheld sovereignty allowed formal relationships to develop between the League and sub-state agents. The unforeseen and creative manipulation of that structural arrangement into a lively public sphere documents the role of claim-makers in Central Europe and the colonial world in shaping the contours of interwar international life.