Defining International Aggression
The Search for World Peace


Held on Monday, February 6th, 1933, at 3.30 p.m.

President: The Right Honourable A. HENDERSON


M. POLITIS (Greece). — I cordially welcome the French plan |1| in principle on behalf of the Greek Government, which accepts the plan in all its parts and is prepared to go as far as the principal Powers are prepared to go in carrying it into effect. This attitude is based on a deep-seated conviction that peace, in order to be lasting and beneficial, can only result from the organisation of the international community. The firmer the international organisation, the greater the safeguards of peace.

M. LITVINOFF (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). — The French delegation has appealed to us to refrain from vague general remarks, but to make clear the attitude of each delegation to the French plan. I am in complete sympathy with this appeal and consider it thoroughly apposite. We are too fond of promising to study proposals without, however, really making a practical study of them or even considering them. The Conference has received any number of proposals, and we have spent a whole year, not on their discussion, but on their postponement, pigeonholing them for some future occasion, or putting them into cold storage in technical commissions. I can assure our French colleagues that the Soviet delegation, which has always spoken frankly and sincerely on all the questions brought before us here, will not now mince its words and will give a precise definition of its attitude. The French delegation has asked us to give "considered approval" or "exact criticism" of its proposals. I shall endeavour to give both.

The Soviet delegation has studied with the deepest interest the French proposals now under discussion, and I am happy to declare that some of them can be supported by it. While far from desiring to minimise their importance, I am, nevertheless, bound to remark that we are unable to find among them any new proposals for the reduction of armaments, or, if any such are to be found therein, they are made to depend strictly on the acceptance by the Conference of the French scheme for security. We are invited first to draw up definite premises which should enable us subsequently to discuss measures for the reduction of armaments. It may not be irrelevant to remind ourselves that, as long ago as 1927, at the fourth session of the Preparatory Commission, the French delegation, in the person of the present Minister for Foreign Affairs, M. Paul-Boncour, demanded that the Commission should investigate the problem of security before drawing up a draft disarmament convention. This proposal was supported by some other delegations and resulted in the creation of a special "Committee for Arbitration and Security", which, in the course of two years, produced a series of proposals, and work was begun upon a draft convention for disarmament.

If I go back to this, it is in part for the purpose of paying due respect to the consistency and tenacity of the leaders of French politics. Now, however, whether because the proposals worked out by the Security Committee have failed to satisfy the French delegation, or because they have been rejected by other delegations, we are confronted by new French proposals for security. This means that, after four years of work on disarmament by the Preparatory Commission and in the second year of the Conference itself, we have been thrown back to the place we were five years ago and are compelled once more to leave the question of disarmament in the background and take up the problem of security. Let us hope this cycle will not repeat itself, and that we shall not find ourselves, at the end of another five years, back again where we now stand.

The Soviet delegation has repeatedly shown its attitude to the question of security, both in the Preparatory Commission and at the present Conference. It has not the slightest desire to ignore this problem, the enormous importance of which it thoroughly realises. We have always, however, been convinced, and still are convinced, that the best, if not the only, guarantee of security for all nations would be total disarmament, or at least the utmost possible reduction of armaments in the shortest possible period. We have always considered, and still consider, that the problem of security approached by any other method is so complex, and evokes such serious political questions and international differences, that it could hardly be solved fortuitously and in a short time, and that to take it up would mean to abandon all idea of disarmament for a very considerable period.

But apparently there is no escape from this problem, if only because it has been raised by a great and powerful State, whose representatives have declared that until it is solved they cannot undertake any obligations with regard to the reduction of armaments. If, therefore, we want to advance, and not just to go round and round, we shall have to consider with all seriousness the French proposals, and make up our minds whether there is any possibility of reaching an international agreement based upon these and other proposals which may be made on security by other delegations, proceeding subsequently to questions of disarmament, or whether such an agreement will prove impossible, in which case we shall have to admit that, owing to the attitude of some States, the whole problem of disarmament and security is insoluble and that it is not through international conferences that humanity will rid itself of the heavy burden of armaments and the scourge of war. In either case, some clarity will have been shed on the fate of the Conference.

In turning to the essence of the French memorandum, I feel bound to state that only its first chapter could affect all the States here represented. The other chapters seem to be intended only for members either of existing international organisations or of future voluntary organisations. Chapter II, for instance, has in view Members of the League of Nations only; Chapter III—and, to a certain extent, Chapter V—European States only, and moreover those connected in a formal way with the League of Nations; Chapter IV, signatories to the Washington Naval Agreement, and Mediterranean States, and these if they are ready to consider the decisions of the League of Nations binding for themselves. It is to be presumed that the authors of these chapters did not have in view the participation in the organisations proposed by them of the Soviet Union, which is situated on the continent of Asia as well as that of Europe, is not a Member of the League of Nations, and is not a signatory of the Washington Agreement.

It seems to me indubitable that, inasmuch as special and very serious obligations are to be imposed upon the participants of the proposed organisations, they are entitled to demand that these obligations should be extended at least to their nearest neighbours. Consequently, since the Soviet Union has not only European States upon its borders, but also Asiatic States, such as Japan, China and others, which are excluded in advance from the organisations proposed and thus exempted from the new obligations, it can hardly be expected that the Soviet Union itself should undertake these obligations. Further, the fulfilment of these obligations and the manner of their fulfilment are left entirely to the decisions of the Council of the League of Nations, which is further proof that this part of the French proposals is not meant to apply to the Soviet Union.

In the circumstances, the Soviet delegation sees no necessity to make at the present moment a detailed analysis of the proposals contained in Chapters II to V of the French memorandum; the more so since it has already expressed its opinion on certain of these proposals, such as, for example, the internationalisation of armed forces, when put before the Disarmament Conference by M. Tardieu, then head of the French delegation. It nevertheless reserves to itself the right to revert to them, if and when the States for which they are intended show readiness to accept them.

As I have already pointed out, only the proposals contained in the first chapter of the French memorandum, dealing with the interpretation and considerable extension of the obligations undertaken by the signatories to the Briand-Kellogg Pact, may be considered as addressed to all the States here represented, including the Soviet Union. I am happy to be able to state that the Soviet delegation raises no objections to these proposals and would be ready to sign a convention embodying them. I venture, however, to make a few observations, in my opinion, of the utmost relevance.

I assume that, if we aim at the strengthening and extension of obligations under the Pact, we are bound at the same time to see to it that the obligations already undertaken remain in full force for all its signatories, and are not limited or minimised by those reservations made on their own account by certain States—reservations practically nullifying the whole Pact. These reservations, it is true, have no legal force, inasmuch as the other signatories to the Pact have not given their assent to them ; but, for all that, cases have been known of aggression being justified by reference to them. The Soviet delegation, therefore, will propose in due time that the States which have made these reservations should formally repudiate them, or that they should be deprived of all legal and moral force by an international agreement.

Further, the French proposals provide for certain international sanctions with regard to a State infringing the Pact—that is to say, a State found to be the aggressor in any armed conflict. This inevitably brings us to the questions : How is the aggressor to be determined, and who is to determine the aggressor ? Apparently we must either think about setting up a special international organ for this purpose, or invest a conference of all signatories to the Pact with the necessary judicial powers. In either case, the question of the impartiality of a decision on a matter of such vital importance for any State as its stigmatisation as an aggressor, and the application to it of international sanctions, is bound to arise. This question is of great interest to all States, but is of special interest to the State which I represent, and on this point more than any other, perfect frankness and mutual understanding are indispensable.

We represent the only country in the whole world which has altered its political system, created a perfectly new political system of Soviets and destroyed capitalism, and which is building up a new social order, while all the other States have preserved the capitalist regime. You are aware that the phenomenon of a Soviet socialist State was so distasteful to the whole capitalist world that, at the time, attempts were even made by way of intervention to restore capitalism in our country, or at least by way of dismemberment to reduce the dimensions of the new State.

These attempts were fruitless, and have not been renewed, but it cannot be said that the idea of fresh attempts has been completely abandoned. On the contrary, we know that it is still cherished in some countries by extremely influential politicians, leaders of great parties, former, future, and even present members of Governments, making a crusade against the Soviet Union almost the centre of their foreign policy, and for this purpose keeping up close organisational and financial connections with émigrés, adherents of the old Russian regime. It must be admitted, then, that the capitalist world as a whole has not yet completely reconciled itself to the existence of a country building up socialism, and this irreconcilability continues to give rise to hostility to such a country, hostility continually finding the most varied means of expression.

I will not weary you by enumerating all the many and various anti-Soviet campaigns which spring up from one year to another. I will merely remark that, taking into account all the States in both hemispheres, the majority have not as yet established normal relations with the Soviet Union—in other words, are applying a boycott against it, one of those very sanctions proposed to be applied in the future only against an aggressor.

In such circumstances it is permissible to enquire whether the Soviet Union may expect a fair attitude towards it and impartial decisions from any international organ, when such an organ consists exclusively of representatives of a capitalist world which is hostile to it, and may have a majority of representatives of the Governments of countries boycotting it. It seems to me there can be no two answers to this question, and, should anyone here doubt this, I would recommend him to imagine, for the sake of hypothesis, that his own State is the only capitalist country in the midst of countries which have established the Soviet system and are building up socialism, and I would ask him to tell us if he thinks his country would entrust the solution of questions vital to itself to an international organ consisting exclusively of representatives of the Governments of Soviet countries.

A moment's thought will show why the Soviet Union, as long as the present attitude to it lasts, cannot agree to acknowledge as binding upon itself the decisions of such international organisations as the Assembly or the Council of the League of Nations, existing international tribunals and arbitration courts, although by no means rejecting on principle the idea of international co-operation or arbitration. This question becomes acute for us every time there is talk of setting up international organs with judicial, controlling and similar functions. It is natural enough, in such circumstances, that we should demand a composition of these organs which should ensure for us the same measure of impartiality and fairness as is enjoyed by other States, and such a demand will have to be made by the Soviet delegation when, in consequence of the French proposals, the question of the establishment of such organs comes up for discussion. We do not think, however, that the fulfilment of this legitimate demand need meet with serious practical difficulties.

Whatever its composition, however, any international organ called upon to determine the aggressor would be bound to experience extraordinary difficulties in existing circumstances, if only from the simple fact that there is no universally acknowledged definition of aggression, and that, in practice as well as in theory, multitudinous discordance prevails on this point. This is demonstrated, among other things, by the reservations made when signing the Briand-Kellogg Pact to which I have referred. What is the meaning of these reservations ? Do they not amount to the insistence of certain States on freedom of action, pact or no pact, in certain cases or in certain parts of the globe ? What these cases or localities are is left for each State to decide. What, it may be asked, are the guarantees that those very circumstances which have hitherto been made pretexts for war will not be regarded as such cases ? Experience has shown us that numerous and various circumstances have been used as justification for aggression, such as, the desire to exploit the natural riches of a given territory, the infringement of some international agreement, the measures taken by some State encroaching upon the material interest of another, the defence of nationals voluntarily residing at their own risk in a given country, the infringement of established privileges by some State, the outbreak of revolution or disorders, and so on. Such justifications for attack have been made, not in the Middle Ages, not in past centuries, but in quite recent times. And this practice has been enriched with new theories. There seems to be a tendency nowadays to justify attack by the actual or alleged chaotic condition of another State, by the extent of capital investments or by special interests in another State, by the allegation of absence of certain State attributes in another country, by strategical considerations, or by the desire to extend one country's line of self-defence well beyond its own frontiers. A theory has also lately been advanced justifying war as one method of ensuring peace. If such theories are widely spread and are taken into account by international arbiters, that is to say, by members of international tribunals, it may confidently be prophesied that an aggressor will never be found in any armed conflict, and that only mutually aggressive or mutually defensive parties will be established, or, worse still, the defensive party will be considered the aggressor, and vice versa.

You are aware that even tribunals acting on the basis of exact laws are not always able to pass just decisions. This is shown by the fact that different judicial authorities, acting on the basis of identical laws, in identical cases pass judgments which are not identical. How much less can it be expected that tribunals will pass fair decisions when they are not bound to obey any laws or guiding lines, and would not this be precisely the situation of an international organ obliged now to apply the Briand-Kellogg Pact ? And here it is a matter, not of the interests of individual citizens, but of those of States and of peoples.

It seems to us obvious that, if we wish to see in action the Briand-Kellogg Pact, together with the extension proposed by the French delegation, and to secure the minimum of authority, impartiality and confidence to the international organ to be called into life by these extensions, we shall have to give it instructions for its guidance, and that means, first of all, defining war and aggression and the distinction between aggression and defence, and once for all condemning those fallacious justifications of aggression with which the past has familiarised us. The Soviet delegation has endeavoured to embody the ideas I have just expounded in a draft declaration which it ventures to offer for your consideration.


The General Commission

Considering that, in the interests of general security and in order to facilitate the attainment of an agreement for the maximum reduction of armaments, it is necessary, with the utmost precision, to define aggression, in order to remove any possibility of its justification;

Recognising the principle of equal right of all States to independence, security and self-defence;

Animated by the desire of ensuring to each nation, in the interests of general peace, the right of free development according to its own choice and at the rate that suits it best, and of safeguarding the security, independence and complete territorial inviolability of each State and its right to self-defence against attack or invasion from outside, but only within its own frontiers; and

Anxious to provide the necessary guidance to the international organs which may be called upon to define the aggressor:

Declares :

1. The aggressor in an international conflict shall be considered that State which is the first to take any of the following actions :

    (a) Declaration of war against another State;
    (b) The invasion by its armed forces of the territory of another State without declaration of war;
    (c) Bombarding the territory of another State by its land, naval or air forces or knowingly attacking the naval or air forces of another State;
    (d) The landing in, or introduction within the frontiers of, another State of land, naval or air forces without the permission of the Government of such a State, or the infringement of the conditions of such permission, particularly as regards the duration of sojourn or extension of area;
    (e) The establishment of a naval blockade of the coast or ports of another State.

2. No considerations whatsoever of a political, strategical or economic nature, including the desire to exploit natural riches or to obtain any sort of advantages or privileges on the territory of another State, no references to considerable capital investments or other special interests in a given State, or to the alleged absence of certain attributes of State organisation in the case of a given country, shall be accepted as justification of aggression as defined in Clause 1.

In particular, justification for attack cannot be based upon:

A. The internal situation in a given State, as, for instance

    (a) Political, economic or cultural backwardness of a given country ;
    (b) Alleged mal-administration ;
    (c) Possible danger to life or property of foreign residents ;
    (d) Revolutionary or counter-revolutionary movement, civil war, disorders or strikes ;
    (e) The establishment or maintenance in any State of any political, economic or social order.

B. Any acts, laws, or regulations of a given State, as, for instance:

    (a) The infringement of international agreements ;
    (b) The infringement of the commercial, concessional or other economic rights or interests of a given State or its citizens ;
    (c) The rupture of diplomatic or economic relations ;
    (d) Economic or financial boycott ;
    (e) Repudiation of debts ;
    (f) Non-admission or limitation of immigration, or restriction of rights or privileges of foreign residents ;
    (g) The infringement of the privileges of official representatives of other States ;
    (h) The refusal to allow armed forces transit to the territory of a third State ;
    (i) Religious or anti-religious measures ;
    (k) Frontier incidents.

3. In the case of the mobilisation or concentration of armed forces to a considerable extent in the vicinity of its frontiers, the State which such activities threaten may have recourse to diplomatic or other means for the peaceful solution of international controversies. It may at the same time take steps of a military nature, analogous to those described above, without, however, crossing the frontier.

* *

The General Commission decides to embody the above principles in the Convention on security and disarmament, or in a special agreement to form an integral part of the said Convention.

* *

In drawing up this document, I was by no means unaware of those discussions which have taken place in the League of Nations, and the difficulties with which attempts to define aggressive acts have met. I am, therefore, able to foresee all the objections and observations which might be made with regard to our document by lawyers or other experts, who will once again point out the impossibility of an absolute definition of aggression, the possibility of cases unforeseen by us, and—most important of all—the difficulty of establishing the original aggressor in the case of concentration of armed forces on either side of a frontier. I can reply in advance to these, that we make no pretensions to absolute definitions, since such are hardly possible or conceivable, and, moreover, in the great majority of cases known to us in history, if not in all cases of armed conflicts, the establishment of such factors as which side was the first to declare war or to commit a real act of aggression has presented no real difficulties, controversy only arising as to the legitimacy of the causes and justification for such aggression. I think the same thing may be said with regard to cases which have come before the League of Nations during the last few years. I admit, however, that the Soviet delegation itself attributes infinitely greater importance to the second clause in its declaration, in which will be found denunciation of instances of justification of aggression, both already known to us in history and capable of arising in the future, than to the other clauses.

I do not feel sure that, in the draft declaration I have just read to you, all conceivable justifications of war have been exhausted, and indeed this was not our purpose. In saying that no considerations whatsoever could justify attack on foreign territory, we cover also circumstances not specially mentioned in the declaration. We are ready to admit the imperfections of the document we are placing before you; we are ready to listen to your objections, to advance and accept amendments, additions and the like. It is not, however, details that matter, but the acceptance of the basic principles underlying this document. These principles consist in the acknowledgment of the inviolability of established and recognised frontiers for any State, great or small; the denial of any State's right to interfere in the affairs, development, legislation or administration of another. We ought to proclaim a "Charter of the Freedom of Nations" at this Conference. Only then will international agreements for the renunciation of war and for non-aggression acquire real significance, and inspire all States with the feeling of some degree of security. I say "some degree", because we still insist that full security for all can only be ensured by total or the utmost possible disarmament.

Until and unless this is fulfilled, however, we shall endeavour to bring about solutions for what is known as the problem of security-solutions that cannot be made the object of diplomatic juggling, but will profit the smaller and weaker, and not only the stronger, countries.

You will realise that our proposals are not meant to compete with or be substituted for the French proposals, but are their logical extension. This is why we regard their consideration as desirable during the discussion of the French proposals.

The Soviet Government, in placing its new proposals before you, is moved exclusively by those same aspirations which caused it at the time to propose total disarmament, and which are causing it to give such prominence in its foreign policy to the system of bilateral non-aggression pacts—aspirations for the utmost possible guarantees of world peace. I do not think there are any left to doubt the peaceable dispositions of the country I represent. It is true there are still sceptics and cynics who endeavour to minimise its significance by pointing out that the Soviet State requires peace for its socialist construction. We do not deny this; but do such people imply that it is only the Soviet State which can build itself up and develop in peaceful conditions, and that other conditions, not peaceful, are required for the development of capitalist States ? If any State giving evidence of peaceable disposition should explain that it requires peace for its own development, we for our part would not hold this against it. We gave every State represented here the opportunity to display such disposition by accepting our proposals for disarmament, and non-aggression pacts; we give them this opportunity once more by our present proposals.

The PRESIDENT observed that, in the declaration which the Soviet representative had made, the latter had stated that he considered it desirable that the proposals he had put forward should be discussed during the discussion of the French plan. The President had, accordingly, requested the Secretariat to circulate the declaration at once, so that, if delegates wished to refer to it during the discussion of the French proposals, they would be in a position to do so.

M. DE ZULUETA (Spain). — From the very outset of our examination of the French disarmament plan, we are unable to free ourselves from the international political atmosphere in which it is submitted to us.

This plan is dictated by the noble aim of organising peace and so making disarmament a practical proposition. It assembles, so to speak, in a logical combination, the developments that have occurred since the League's foundation. It is designed to continue and complete the Geneva Covenant and the Pact of Paris ; and I do not think that I am being unduly pessimistic when I say that these two instruments are at present passing through the most serious crisis they have known.

While the world is struggling in the throes of an economic depression, grave international conflicts are putting our faith in the efficacy of treaties to the severest test. In the Far East, notwithstanding the endeavours which the Council and Assembly have been making since September 1931, and are still making, might is still the deciding factor. In the West, two peoples, united to one another, and to Spain as well, by ties of kinship, are openly employing force in defiance of the obligations they assumed under the League Covenant. There are other conflicts, too, poisoning the international atmosphere. In the East as in the West, for various reasons which it is not for me to discuss, we see methods of ensuring peace wrecked by the age-long tendency to resort to violence.

Those are the facts, and any policy which did not set out from a direct appreciation of them would be condemned to failure through lack of realism.

The Spanish Republic, which I represent, has testified to its sense of idealism in international matters; but I wish to say in the clearest possible terms that its idealism is in fact only a clear-sighted realism—that is to say that, while Spain desires always to look afar


1. Document Conf.D.146. [Back]

2. Document Conf.D/C.G.38. [Back]

Source: League of Nations, Records of the Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments, Minutes of the General Commission, Series B., vol. II, Geneva, Feb. 6, 1933, pp. 234-239.
Editorial Note: This is a true copy of an extract (pp. 234-239) of the above-referenced original document. This document is reproduced in Benjamin B. Ferencz's work "Defining International Aggression - The Search for World Peace", Vol. 1, as Document No. 9.

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