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India’s Founding Role in the League of Nations and UN

General Assembly's Plenary:  High-level meeting on the appraisal of the Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons (under agenda item 103 Crime prevention and criminal justice). india
New Delhi. On 28 June 1919, the main combatants of the First World War assembled at Versailles to sign a treaty to formally end the conflict that had been fought across Europe, Asia and Africa. Among the signatories was India, which was then a colony of the British Empire. Sir Ganga Singhji, the Maharaja of Bikaner, signed the Treaty of Versailles along with Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India in the British Government.

The two signatures for India on the parchment of the Treaty recognized the significant contribution made by India to the successful war effort, both in terms of military and financial resources. India had loaned ‎£100 million (worth about‎ £6.9 billion today) to the British Treasury in 1917.

And almost 1.3 million Indian troops from units of the British Indian Army and India’s Princely States had fought as volunteers in the war across the three continents. About 70,000 of them died in the conflict, their names recorded on India Gate at the heart of New Delhi. Official commemorations of the centenary of the First World War in Belgium and France have highlighted the critical role played by Indian troops in preventing these two countries from being overrun by Germany in the autumn and winter of 1914.

The Treaty of Versailles had two main objectives. One was to make defeated Germany pay reparations to the victorious allies for having instigated the First World War. The other was to create an inter-governmental organization called the League of Nations to regulate relations between nation states. At the heart of this multilateral structure was the principle of international cooperation, considered essential to sustaining the peace between nation states.

The League of Nations with 32 founder-members came into being exactly 100 years ago, holding its first meeting on 10 January 1919. As a signatory of the Treaty of Versailles, India automatically became a founder-member of the League.

The organization had three main objectives: to ensure collective security, to assure functional cooperation and to execute the mandates of the peace treaties. Of course, the League failed to prevent the outbreak of the Second World War, but its short-lived existence provided the groundwork for many of the current activities of specialized agencies of the United Nations. These include the International Labour Organization (ILO), and the UN Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO).

Unveiling of the Permanent Memorial to Honor the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Inaugural of Ark of Return Memorial to Slavery at UN Headquarters for which India is main finnacial contributor April 2015

In April 1946, the League members met in Geneva and decided to transfer its properties and heritage to the UN.

In August 2019, the Government of India issued a commemorative stamp marking the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

India’s international profile was established by the Treaty, although her membership of the League as a non-self-governing country has been termed “the anomaly of anomalies” by legal historians. However, it is conceded that as a founder-member of the League, India enjoyed equal legal status with the other sovereign members of the League. In the two decades of the League’s activity, India gradually created her own imprint on multilateral affairs. Two themes exemplify this even today.

First, India’s commitment to peace and prevention of war. India was one of the 15 members of the League that signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact (also known as “The Peace Pact”) in Paris in 1927, which outlawed war. US Secretary of State Kellogg was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929 for his role in initiating the Treaty.

Two examples from the period of India’s membership of the League illustrate the steps India took to substantiate her commitment to peace. On 22 April 1915, Indian troops had been part of the Allied army deployed during the Second Battle of Ypres (in Belgium) against whom the German army had used chemical weapons for the first time in modern warfare.

Between 7 and 14 May 1925, under the League of Nations, the Geneva Protocol was signed outlawing the use of chemical and biological weapons during war. India was one of the 38 members of the League that signed the Protocol. In 1993, the United Nations updated the Geneva Protocol by negotiating the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to universalize obligations of modern member-states to ban the use of chemical weapons in war and established an inter-governmental Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to verify this obligation.

In 2009 the OPCW confirmed that India had destroyed her chemical weapons stockpiles, becoming the third country in the world to do so.

Significantly, India was also the only member of the League to have signed and ratified the French-initiated Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Terrorism (1937). This Convention was not signed by Britain. The Convention focused on the legal obligation of “prosecute or extradite”. This principle is carried forward into India’s current efforts to have the UN adopt a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT).

SG attends a first world war commemoration lead by the mission of India where a commemorative book was released on the memorials around the world
Launching Book on Indian War Memorials of the First World War at the UN in August 2014

The second theme is about India’s efforts and involvement in the newly created multilateral structures to sustain domestic socio-economic development.

India’s active membership of the ILO, also created by the Treaty of Versailles, since 1922 has been amply recognized by India’s Ministry of Labour. Since 1922, India has been one of the 10 permanent members (as a “country of chief industrial importance” among the 28 governments represented in the ILO’s governing council.

Among the issues of direct interest to India which were raised in the ILO were the relaxation of working hours for industrial workers due to India’s specific climate conditions and special treatment for Indian seamen. This approach has widened since the creation of the United Nations, with specialized agencies such as the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), all playing critical roles in India’s socio-economic development activities.

Of the Indian envoys who left a legacy in multilateral diplomacy from the first decade of the League of Nations, the name of India’s fourth High Commissioner in London, Sir Atul Chatterjee, ICS stands out. The topper of the 1896 batch of the Indian Civil Service, he proposed and completed the construction of India House in Aldywch, London which houses India’s first diplomatic mission abroad. As the leader of India’s delegation to the League and the ILO, he played a prominent role, becoming the first Indian to preside over both the General Assembly (1927) and Governing Body of the ILO (1933).

Launch of Virtual Wall in Memory of Indian UN Peacekeepers 2015
Launch of Virtual Wall in Memory of Indian UN Peacekeepers 2015

At its First Assembly on 18 December 1920, the League decided to create an International Committee for Intellectual Cooperation. France volunteered to finance and house the Committee, which was the precursor of the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), headquartered in Paris. India’s role in augmenting intellectual cooperation for peace and the “unity of mankind” was actively propagated by Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who was a member of the Committee from 1931-1938. Dr Radhakrishnan represented India in UNESCO between 1946-1952. Highly respected, he became Vice President of the Republic of India (1952-1962), and then the President (1962-1967).

As a stakeholder in multilateral diplomacy for a century, India is well-placed today to build on her experience to focus international cooperation for world peace and socio-economic development.

India’s impending election to a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council for the 2021-2022 term, and her expected chairmanship of the G-20 in 2022, will provide important multilateral platforms to achieve this objective.

–The author is former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations

Source: India Strategic
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