HAILE SELASSIE EMPEROR OF ETHIOPIA
Ethiopia Joins The League
Those readers with a taste for irony will relish the story of the manoeuvres of the great powers which resulted in the admission of Ethiopia to the League of Nations. There was almost a complete reversal of the points of view shown to-day. Great Britain, though a member of the committee which had reported the application to be in order as regarded form, pressed for more thorough examination of the internal state of Ethiopia before the admission was granted; while Italy and France professed themselves entirely satisfied that the Regent, Haile Selassie, both could and would fulfil his obligations, and that his country might properly be admitted without delay to the protection of the League.
A careful reading of the speeches made during the debate must depress beyond measure the idealist student of international affairs. Are these representatives of great nations speaking their minds frankly and are the opinions they express worth consideration, he will ask, or are there hidden policies behind every utterance? There is Count Bonin Longare, delegate of Italy, speaking at the fourth meeting of the League Committee. It has been suggested that arms imported by Ethiopia may reach insurgent tribes in other parts of Africa and that safeguards must be devised against such an occurrence. What does the Count say? He deprecates the anxiety which Britain among others has shown on this ground, urges that Ethiopia can be trusted not to abuse the confidence now placed in her, and that in any case supervision can be effectively maintained from the coast. Clearly no special reservations need be made concerning the import of arms....
How strangely that utterance reads in the light of present events!
Portugal has suggested that the difficulties which Ethiopia may experience in obtaining arms as the result of the convention of Saint Germain, to which, since she was not an original signatory, she must subscribe as a condition of entry to the League, may, in fact, be a serious obstacle to her in dealing with the slave trade. Count Bonin Longare points out that a special licence can always be given her to import arms for that purpose. He passes on to deal with slavery. It exists admittedly, but care must be taken that exaggerated conceptions do not accompany the use of the word. Slavery as known in Abyssinia is merely a mild form of serfdom... and so on.
Turn again to the pages of the dossier League of Nations—Records of the Plenary Meetings of the Fourth Assembly.... Minutes of the Sixth Committee.... The Count is speaking again. To wait for the abolition of slavery before admitting Abyssinia to the League of Nations would be unfair, he urges. It is precisely the admission of their country to the League which will strengthen the hands of the central government so that slavery can be stamped out swiftly.... And France, through her delegate, upholds this point of view.
Britain, on the other hand, is cautious. There is a well-organised and very vocal condemnation of slavery to be faced at home. The wife of a distinguished politician has made it her life’s work (an Ethiopian cynic might say her hobby) to urge the suppression of slavery everywhere. But is it this fact which prompts the British hesitancy? The French and Italian journalists think otherwise. Their countries, they say, are executing an astute move in supporting the admission of Ethiopia; they are, in fact, twisting the British Lion’s tail. Britain has been getting far too much the best of it in those regions lately. Her influence at Addis Ababa especially is growing—probably on account of the race track, but nevertheless it grows. She was out to grab Ethiopia in her usual pre-war style, but this move has beaten her. Once let Ethiopia come within the Leage of Nations and no one can grab her.... And so the talk in the lobbies continues, each journalist priding himself on the fact that his point of view is just a shade more cynical than that of the rest.
Regent Haile Selassie, who has set going all this buzz of talk, receives in Addis Ababa the reports that his representatives send him. This is an important matter for him. He has faith in the League, and looks to it for a guarantee of external peace under cover of which he can set to work on his task of modernising and reforming the institutions of his country.
The first reports which he receives show that Britain, Switzerland, Australia and Norway are opposing his admission while four European nations, all with considerable colonial and commercial interests in Africa—France, Belgium, Italy and Portugal, are giving unqualified support; from which it seems clear that the chances are in the Emperor’s favour, but he has learned how great is the concerted influence of the British Empire, and expresses the opinion to his councillors that success is by no means certain should there be any hardening of British opposition. It has so frequently been represented that the admission of Ethiopia was a foregone conclusion that it is well to point out that it was only when Great Britain began to show a more accommodating attitude that the success of the Emperor’s plans was regarded as certain.
The various documents involved in the procedure are interesting. In their application the Emperor and his advisers did not adopt the suave officialese of some paid European advocate. The request for admission was phrased in national style. It opened thus:
“The Holy Scriptures bear witness that since the year 1500 after Solomon we have been contending with the heathen—by whom (as may be seen from the map of country) we are surrounded—for the faith and laws of God and to maintain the independence of our country and the freedom of our religion....
“We know that the League of Nations guarantees independence and territorial integrity of all nations of the world and maintains peace and agreement among them; that all its efforts are directed towards the strengthening of friendship among the races of mankind; that it is anxious to remove hindrances to that friendship which give rise to wars when one country is offended; and that it causes truth and loyalty to be respected among the nations.”
This document came as a surprise to Great Britain but there is evidence that it was not unexpected in other quarters, though the Emperor had not notified his intentions to any beyond the closest of his advisers. A subcommittee of the League, consisting of Britain, France, Italy, Finland, Persia, Latvia and Rumania, seven in all, was hastily appointed to examine the position. After somewhat lengthy discussion they reported as follows:
There remained only one other point necessary to qualify the Ethiopian Empire for advancement to full obligations had always been discharged satisfactorily in the past.
On this point the Committee showed some hesitancy, but there were obviously so many other full members of the League who would have been embarrassed by a strict enforcement of this condition that it could hardly be pressed against Ethiopia without starting most unwelcome controversies. The chief grounds urged for the negative were familiar—there were the questions of gun-running, slavery, delay in the fulfilment of concessions, and raiding over the borders both for ivory and slaves. It was argued against these that the gun-running was clearly not the wish of the Negus, who would be very much embarrassed by arms reaching insurgent chieftains; that the slavery was not of a cruel nature and was slowly being eradicated; that the delay in the implementing of concessions was a matter in which it was difficult to apportion blame; and that finally the facts seemed to show that the untamed tribes of the border raided not only into neighbouring states but also into Ethiopia, whose central government would be glad to co-operate in their suppression.
The Committee at length reported in guarded terms that while it could not be stated that Abyssinia’s engagements had always been strictly fulfilled in the past.... nevertheless, in order to assist her to overcome the difficulties which might in the past have been obstacles to such fulfilment, the present application for admission to the League might well be granted, subject to certain provisoes.
“1. Abyssinia adheres to the obligations formulated in Article XI, paragraph 1, of the Convention signed at Saint-Germain-en-Laye on September 10, 1919, amending the General Act of Berlin dated February 26, 1885, and the General Act and Declaration of Brussels dated July 2, 1890.
The Brussels Act of July 2nd, 1890, which was the result of an Anti-Slavery Convention held at Brussels at a time when it had just been revealed that various European powers were profiting from the slave trade, had been an agreement that in order to keep down the abominable traffic and also to prevent possible native risings (to “assist in the preservation of African populations” said the preamble to the Act) there should be no importation of arms into large areas of Central Africa.
This treaty had not been strictly adhered to, and the World War had caused its edges to become extremely blurred. It was therefore re-affirmed and amended by the “Convention for the Control of the Trade in Arms and Ammunition” signed at Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1919.
Once again there were delays and evasions, and in 1925 the Convention for the Supervision of the International Trade in Arms was signed at Geneva.
It is worth noticing that one of the conditions attached to the signing of both of these agreements was that until a certain number of ratifications had been made they should be inoperative. In neither case were the required ratifications forthcoming.... The reasons why this was so offer a fascinating study to the impartial observer of the international scene.
Once again an Ethiopian cynic has pointed out that in 1930 and 1932 roughly thirty per cent of the export trade in arms was Great Britain’s.
But this is all a digression, though a necessary one. It shows that there were sufficient uneasy consciences present round the Council table for it to be extremely difficult to press home the case against Abyssinia even had the case been a good one. Particularly interesting was the statement of the British delegate, who said that... “Latterly frontier raids have taken place into British territory. This is certainly not due to any want of good will on the part of the Abyssinian Government but to defective supervision of the traffic in arms in outlying districts.”
On September 28th, 1923, the Abyssinian delegate, acting on direct instructions from Ras Tafari, signed a declaration that his country would adhere to the Convention of Saint Germain concerning traffic in arms. The Assembly thereupon recorded a unanimous vote for the admission of Ethiopia to the League of Nations.
The news was flashed to Addis Ababa and was received with great pleasure by the Regent. “By this progressive move,” said a British official, congratulating him on the success of his policy, “you have made the frontiers of your country secure....”
THE FAMOUS LETTER TO THE LEAGUE.
In June, 1926, three years after the admission of Abyssinia to the League of Nations, it came to the notice of Ras Tafari that Great Britain, France, and Italy, without the least pretence of consulting him, had come to an arrangement among themselves as to how the development of Ethiopian territories was to be shared among them.
The letter which the Regent sent to the League of Nations—together with the whole dossier dealing with the matter—is a classic in the brief and extremely sporadic annals of open diplomacy. Rarely can a situation have been summed up with such devastating courtesy and fairness. This is what he wrote:
“We have been profoundly moved by the conclusions of this agreement concluded without our being consulted or informed, and by the action of the two Governments in sending us a joint notification.
“In the first place, on our admission to the League of Nations we were told that all nations were to be on a footing of equality within the League, and that their independence was to be universally respected, since the purpose of the League is to establish and maintain peace among men in accordance with the will of God.
“We were not told that certain Members of the League might make a separate agreement to impose their views on another Member, even if the latter considered those views incompatible with its national interests.
“Secondly, one of the subjects covered by the agreement had already been discussed between the British Government and our own, and the fact that no conclusion had been reached was due to reasons of whose nature and importance we were fully aware; we had, however, never given any definite reply. We cannot help thinking, therefore, that in agreeing to support each other in these matters, and in giving us a joint agreement, the two Governments are endeavouring to exert pressure on us in order to induce us to comply with their demands prematurely, without having any time for reflection or consideration of our people’s needs.
“The people of Abyssinia are anxious to do right, and we have every intention of guiding them along the path of improvement and progress; but throughout their history they have seldom met with foreigners who did not desire to possess themselves of Abyssinian territory and to destroy their independence. With God’s help, and thanks to the courage of our soldiers, we have always, come what might, stood proud and free upon our native mountains.
“For this reason, prudence is needed when we have to convince our people that foreigners who wish to establish themselves for economic reasons in our country, or on the frontiers between it and their possessions, are genuinely innocent of political aims; and we doubt whether agreements and joint representations such as those now in question are the best means of instilling that conviction.
“Nor must it be forgotten that we have only recently been introduced to modern civilisation and that our history, glorious though it may be, has not prepared us for ready adjustment to conditions which are often quite beyond the range of our experience. Nature herself has never gone forward by sudden bounds, and no country has been metamorphosed in a night.
“With our well-known eagerness for progress—given time and the friendly advice of countries whose geographical position has enabled them to out-distance us in the race—we shall be able to secure gradual but continual improvements which will make Abyssinia great in the future as she has been throughout the past. But if we try to go too fast accidents may happen.
“We should like to hear from the Members of the League whether they think it right that means of pressure should be exerted which they themselves would doubtless never accept.
“We have the honour to bring to the notice of all the States Members of the League of Nations the correspondence which we have received, in order that they may decide whether that correspondence is compatible with the independence of our country, inasmuch as it included the stipulations that part of our Empire is to be allotted to the economic influence of a given power. We cannot but realise that economic influence and political influence are very closely bound up together; and it is our duty to protest most strongly against an agreement which, in our view, conflicts with the essential principles of the League of Nations.”
The replies of the various nations concerned are also classics—of their kind. As to whether it is a very admirable kind the impartial student shall be left to judge.
1. GREAT BRITAIN
“There is nothing in the Anglo-Italian notes to suggest coercion or the exercise of pressure on the Abyssinian Government. Sir Austen Chamberlain has stated in Parliament that the agreement was certainly not to be used and could not be used for the purpose of coercing the Abyssinian Government. He believed the agreement to be in the interest of all three parties, but added that, of course, the Abyssinian Government has a perfect right to judge of what was in the interest of Abyssinia.”
[It cannot be said that the British Government has acted hurriedly, went on the letter, and dealt again with the attempts to obtain the concession since 1902.]
“Sir Austen Chamberlain desires to emphasise that the Anglo-Italian notes do not reserve any part of Abyssinia to Italian economic influence. His Britannic Majesty’s Government, so far as they are concerned, and under certain conditions, ‘recognise an exclusive economic influence in the west of Abyssinia.’ This recognition cannot affect the rights of third parties or bind the Government of Abyssinia. It imposes no obligation on anyone except the British Government, who, in return for Italian undertakings in regard to Lake Tsana, engage not to compete or support competition with Italian enterprise in the region specified.”
Italy’s explanation of the points raised by the Regent was even more explicit than the statement of Sir Austen Chamberlain.
“As regards the recognition by the British Government of an exclusive sphere of Italian economic influence in certain parts of Abyssinia, it is clear that this constitutes an agreement which is binding solely on the Italian and British Governments; it cannot detract from the right of the Abyssinian Government to take such decisions as it may think fit, or limit the possible action of third parties.
“It is a guarantee of an economic nature obtained for Italian enterprises against British enterprises in order to avoid competition which might imperil the success of these enterprises and hinder the development of local resources which it may well be in the interests of Abyssinia to assist and promote.”
The language of international diplomacy has rarely been so positive as this, and it is strange to reflect that the great Power which was solemnly affirming the independence of Ethiopia was at the same time planning how the country might best be seized.
Electronic edition created and published online by members of the
June 6, 2021