By November 20, 2017 Read More →

June 16, 1919 Refugees / Minority Rights

1949 Jewish Refugees from Arab CountriesThe Germans, even before the Versailles treaty was completed, were preparing to argue the case for minority rights to protect Germans living outside of Germany’s borders. The representatives of the great powers, aware of the problem, were not particularly anxious to tackle questions of political or cultural autonomy, while the successor states had every interest in burying the issue altogether. Nevertheless, as the creations of 1919 had left many minority groups, long at odds with their new political masters, exposed to dangers that were magnified by the granting of self-determination to some but not to all national groups, the peacemakers felt they had to offer some measure of protection. In so doing, albeit in a much-qualified manner, they extended the rules of international law. After the rejection of proposals to include the protection of minorities within the Covenant of the League of Nations itself, the minority issue was finally directly and separately addressed. The Paris Peace Conference created the Committee of New States in May 1919. It was no easy task:  the committee was pressed for time (the German delegation was already in Paris), subject to all kinds of political constraints, and had in the background reports of fresh violence in Eastern Europe. Dominated by its British and American members, the committee drafted model minority treaties, first for Poland and then for Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, Greece, and Romania.  Despite bitter protests from their representatives, the Polish government, as a condition for recognition, had to grant in Articles 1—8 complete “protection of life and liberty to all inhabitants” regardless of “birth, nationality, language, race or religion” and to guarantee the free exercise of any “creed, religion or belief” not inconsistent with public order or public morals. 4 Article 9 gave special protection to the rights of non-Polish-speaking citizens.  The Jews were dealt with specifically in two further articles.  Article 10 laid down that the “Jewish communities of Poland” could establish educational committees of their own choosing and would receive a share of public funds, while Article 11 guaranteed that the Jewish Sabbath was to be respected and not used as a weapon against the Jews.  This was not the recognition of “national autonomy” that many of the Jewish representatives in Paris wanted, but it was at least an implicit recognition of the separate character of Jewry as being legitimate and inviolable.  This measure of legitimacy applied only to the Jews in Poland; the special clauses relating to the Jews were not included in the other minority treaties.  Still, it held out the hope of future amelioration at a time when the Jews were facing new and highly dangerous challenges to their very existence.

Poland provided the model for the whole series of subsequent minority treaties protecting the interests of racial, religious, and linguistic minorities.  By 1924 thirteen states (Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Turkey, and Yugoslavia) had recognized minorities as collective entities and had agreed to respect their “national rights.  Upper Silesia and, in 1932, Iraq were added to the list.

The exchanges of population, as in the Greco-Turkish case of 1923, were seen as exceptional and made necessary only because of the seeming impossibility of any other solution.   While they did little to diminish the animosity that the Greek-Turkish case of 1923, were seen as exceptional and made necessary only because of the seeming impossibility of any other solution.  While they did little to diminish the animosity that the Greek-Turkish war engendered, these population exchanges removed a source of considerable danger to relations between the two states.

  1. Quoted in Carole Fink, “The Minorities Question at the Paris Peace Conference: The Polish Minority Treaty, June 28, 1919,” in Boemeke, Feldman, and Glaser (eds.), The Treaty of Versailles, 269-70.

Source: 2, p. 136.

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