League of Nations Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery

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League of Nations Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery


By: League of Nations

Date: September 25, 1926

Source: League of Nations. Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery. September 25, 1926. Available online at Yale Law School. "The Avalon Project." May 28, 2006. 〈http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/league/lea001.htm〉 (accessed May 29, 2006).

About the Author: The League of Nations formed in 1919 as part of the postwar accords from World War I. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson first presented the idea of the League in his Fourteen Points Speech on January 8, 1918. Wilson initially called his plan The Covenant of the League of Nations, and through his work the League became Section I of the Treaty of Versailles. January 10, 1920 saw the ratification of the treaty, and the official formation of the League of Nations. It first met in Geneva on November 15, 1920, and twenty nations joined. The League was intended to prevent future hostilities through mediation and non-violent intervention, but many countries withdrew from the League and the United States never joined. Scholars note that the United States' failure to join the League caused many countries to withdraw their support for it. After the outbreak of World War II (1939–1945) most saw the League as a failure. It was replaced by the United Nations after the war.


The League of Nations was an outcome of the four years of destruction and the tens of millions of lives lost in Europe during World War One (1914–1918). The Treaty of Versailles was the peace settlement negotiated between the Allied forces and Germany and its allies in 1919 that formally ended the First World War. The treaty contained a specific covenant that provided the basis for the creation of the League of Nations, a group of nations whose primary aim was the prevention of future war through cooperation.

The League of Nations was founded upon four essential principles as set out in the Versailles covenant. The first principle was the notion that independent nation states, as opposed to large colonial empires, would be the desired political entities of the world in this post-war era. Flowing from the nation state concept was the desire among the signatories to the Versailles treaty that open discussions of regional and international issues was far preferable to the secret diplomacy practiced particularly by the Great Powers (England, France, Germany, Russia) prior to 1914.

The Versailles covenant next provided for the elimination of the large military alliances where war might be declared as a reflex action to an ally becoming involved in an armed dispute. It was this complex and rigidly formulated alliance structure that drew so many European countries inexorably into war in 1914. The signatory nations to the Versailles treaty agreed to develop an alternative to the alliance system, through the creation of a more flexible network of international agreements designed to preserve the collective security of its members.

The last of the four cornerstones upon which the League of Nations was constructed was the desire to facilitate international disarmament and to create an international climate where an arms buildup would be discouraged in any League member.

The League of Nations was formally constituted in 1920, when the representatives of forty-one member nations met in Geneva. The President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), had advocated American participation in the League, and he personally supported the Treaty of Versailles. However, sentiment in the United States at the end of WWI in 1918 was strongly isolationist. In deference to public opinion, the United States Senate would not ratify the Versailles Treaty, thereby excluding the United States from League of Nations membership.

Consumed by its 1917 revolution and the aftermath of that conflict, Russia was never a signatory to the treaty.

The members of the League of Nations also sought to advance a number of broad international social initiatives after 1920. The most far reaching and the most forceful of these efforts was the League's denunciation of the slave trade and slavery. The 1926 Convention to suppress the slave trade and slavery was signed by forty countries; the Convention built upon the historical precedent of 1889–90 Brussels Conference where slavery was repudiated, as well as the investigative report commissioned by the League in 1924.



Whereas the signatories of the General Act of the Brussels Conference of 1889–90 declared that they were equally animated by the firm intention of putting an end to the traffic in African slaves;

Whereas the signatories of the Convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye of 1919, to revise the General Act of Berlin of 1885, and the General Act and Declaration of Brussels of 1890, affirmed their intention of securing the complete suppression of slavery in all its forms and of the slave trade by land and sea;

Taking into consideration the report of the Temporary Slavery Commission appointed by the Council of the League of Nations on June 12th, 1924;

Desiring to complete and extend the work accomplished under the Brussels Act and to find a means of giving practical effect throughout the world to such intentions as were expressed in regard to slave trade and slavery by the signatories of the Convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and recognising that it is necessary to conclude to that end more detailed arrangements than are contained in that Convention;

Considering, moreover, that it is necessary to prevent forced labour from developing into conditions analogous to slavery,

Have decided to conclude a Convention and have accordingly appointed as their Plenipotentiaries: [here follow the names of 40 envoys, omitted] Who, having communicated their full powers, have agreed as follows:

Article 1.

For the purpose of the present Convention, the following definitions are agreed upon:

  1. Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.
  2. The slave trade includes all acts involved in the capture, acquisition or disposal of a person with intent to reduce him to slavery; all acts involved in the acquisition of a slave with a view to selling or exchanging him; all acts of disposal by sale or exchange of a slave acquired with a view to being sold or exchanged, and, in general, every act of trade or transport in slaves.

Article 2.

The High Contracting Parties undertake, each in respect of the territories placed under its sovereignty, jurisdiction, protection, suzerainty or tutelage, so far as they have not already taken the necessary steps:

(a)To prevent and suppress the slave trade;

(b)To bring about, progressively and as soon as possible, the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms.

Article 3.

The High Contracting Parties undertake to adopt all appropriate measures with a view to preventing and suppressing the embarkation, disembarkation and transport of slaves in their territorial waters and upon all vessels flying their respective flags.

The High Contracting Parties undertake to negotiate as soon as possible a general Convention with regard to the slave trade which will give them rights and impose upon them duties of the same nature as those provided for in the Convention of June 17th, 1925, relative to the International Trade in Arms (Articles 12, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, and paragraphs 3, 4 and 5 of Section II of Annex II), with the necessary adaptations, it being understood that this general Convention will not place the ships (even of small tonnage) of any High Contracting Parties in a position different from that of the other High Contracting Parties.

It is also understood that, before or after the coming into force of this general Convention the High Contracting Parties are entirely free to conclude between themselves, without, however, derogating from the principles laid down in the preceding paragraph, such special agreements as, by reason of their peculiar situation, might appear to be suitable in order to bring about as soon as possible the complete disappearance of the slave trade.

Article 4.

The High Contracting Parties shall give to one another every assistance with the object of securing the abolition of slavery and the slave trade.

Article 5.

The High Contracting Parties recognise that recourse to compulsory or forced labour may have grave consequences and undertake, each in respect of the territories placed under its sovereignty, jurisdiction, protection, suzerainty or tutelage, to take all necessary measures to prevent compulsory or forced labour from developing into conditions analogous to slavery.

It is agreed that:

  1. Subject to the transitional provisions laid down in paragraph (2) below, compulsory or forced labour may only be exacted for public purposes.
  2. In territories in which compulsory or forced labour for other than public purposes still survives, the High Contracting Parties shall endeavour progressively and as soon as possible to put an end to the practice. So long as such forced or compulsory labour exists, this labour shall invariably be of an exceptional character, shall always receive adequate remuneration, and shall not involve the removal of the labourers from their usual place of residence.
  3. In all cases, the responsibility for any recourse to compulsory or forced labour shall rest with the competent central authorities of the territory concerned.

Article 6.

Those of the High Contracting Parties whose laws do not at present make adequate provision for the punishment of infractions of laws and regulations enacted with a view to giving effect to the purposes of the present Convention undertake to adopt the necessary measures in order that severe penalties may be imposed in respect of such infractions.

Article 7.

The High Contracting Parties undertake to communicate to each other and to the Secretary-General of the League of Nations any laws and regulations which they may enact with a view to the application of the provisions of the present Convention.

Article 8.

The High Contracting Parties agree that disputes arising between them relating to the interpretation or application of this Convention shall, if they cannot be settled by direct negotiation, be referred for decision to the Permanent Court of International Justice. In case either or both of the States Parties to such a dispute should not be parties to the Protocol of December 16th, 1920 relating to the Permanent Court of International Justice, the dispute shall be referred, at the choice of the Parties and in accordance with the constitutional procedure of each State either to the Permanent Court of International Justice or to a court of arbitration constituted in accordance with the Convention of October 18th, 1907, for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, or to some other court of arbitration.

Article 9.

At the time of signature or of ratification or of accession, any High Contracting Party may declare that its acceptance of the present Convention docs not bind some or all of the territories placed under its sovereignty, jurisdiction, protection, suzerainty or tutelage in respect of all or any provisions of the Convention; it may subsequently accede separately on behalf of any one of them or in respect of any provision to which any one of them is not a party.

Article 10.

In the event of a High Contracting Party wishing to denounce the present Convention, the denunciation shall be notified in writing to the Secretary-General of the League of Nations, who will at once communicate a certified true copy of the notification to all the other High Contracting Parties, informing them of the date on which it was received.

The denunciation shall only have effect in regard to the notifying State, and one year after the notification has reached the Secretary-General of the League of Nations.

Denunciation may also be made separately in respect of any territory placed under its sovereignty, jurisdiction, protection, suzerainty or tutelage.

Article 11.

The present Convention, which will bear this day's date and of which the French and English texts are both authentic, will remain open for signature by the States Members of the League of Nations until April 1st, 1927. The Secretary-General of the League of Nations will subsequently bring the present Convention to the notice of States which have not signed it, including States which are not Members of the League of Nations, and invite them to accede thereto.

A State desiring to accede to the Convention shall notify its intention in writing to the Secretary-General of the League of Nations and transmit to him the instrument of accession, which shall be deposited in the archives of the League.

The Secretary-General shall immediately transmit to all the other High Contracting Parties a certified true copy of the notification and of the instrument of accession, informing them of the date on which he received them.

Article 12.

The present Convention will be ratified and the instruments of ratification shall be deposited in the office of the Secretary-General of the League of Nations. The Secretary-General will inform all the High Contracting Parties of such deposit.

The Convention will come into operation for each State on the date of the deposit of its ratification or of its accession.

In faith whereof the Plenipotentiaries have signed the present Convention.

DONE at Geneva the twenty-fifth day of September, One thousand nine hundred and twenty-six, in one copy, which will be deposited in the archives of the League of Nations. A certified copy shall be forwarded to each signatory State.


The League of Nations is regarded in many scholarly reviews as a body that was founded upon laudable ideals, but an organization that ultimately lacked the cohesion and the political clout to effectively maintain world peace. Critics point to the absence of the United States in the League membership as a key reason for the pronounced gap between principles and progress in the League efforts to settle international conflicts, particularly in the 1930s. It is notable in this context that the League of Nations was not defeated in battle so much as it simply faded away when it became plain the League had no real military means with which it could even threaten a response to aggression. The Japanese incursion into Manchuria in 1931 and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 are the most prominent examples of such aggression.

The League was successful in its Convention to suppress slavery, although not in the fashion necessarily intended by the League member nations. The primary significance of the 1926 Convention was the subsequent importance that came to be attached to this international statement of opposition to slavery. The United Nations (UN) embraced the principles of the Convention when the UN crafted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

The language used by the drafters of the Convention is also illustrative of their broader and enlightened purpose. The Convention extended the commonly accepted definition of slavery from beyond simple ownership of a person, to the concept of forced labor. The Convention is clear that compulsory labor in anything except public purposes required careful examination as to whether such practices were in fact slavery. In 1926, the best-known public purposes where labor was forced were the armed forces or the prisons of a nation. The Convention also endeavored to eliminate any possible gaps in the definition of slave trade; the section cast a seemingly broad net over any activity, deliberate or innocent, that worked to advance slavery practices.

The concern of forced labor as de facto slavery is an issue that resonates today. Concerns have been raised periodically with China that its prisoners are required to perform labor and receive no remuneration for their work. Further, as evidenced by the enactment of legislation such as the United States Trafficking Victims Protection Act, 2000, the broad definition of slavery first advanced by the Convention of 1926 is accepted as the global standard today. In the American legislation (other countries such as Canada, Germany, and Great Britain have passed similar rules), there are provisions to combat the trade in both workers who are involuntarily held or where the worker is forced to work in the sex trade. Child labor and the participation of children in armed forces are extensions of the original definition consistent with modern developments. United States government statistics suggest that between 700,000 and four million persons per year are victims of human trafficking for a variety of forced labor and sex trade purposes.

The 1926 Convention also contemplated that issues arising from any practice related to slavery would be determined by a Permanent Council of International Justice. This body was also a forerunner to the modern World Court and its structure, based in the Hague.



Gide, Andre. Travels in the Congo. Berkley; University of California Press, 1962.

Miers, Susan. Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem. Walnut Creek, California; Altamira Press, 2003.

Pollock, Frederick. The League of Nations. Clark, New Jersey; Lawbook Exchange, 2003.


Irwin, Mary Ann. " 'White Slavery'as a Metaphor/Anatomy of Moral Panic." Ex Post Facto The History Journal, San Francisco State University. Vol. V (1996).

Web sites

British Broadcasting Corporation. "The League of Nations and the United Nations." May 29, 2006. 〈http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/state/nations/league_nations_01.shtml〉 (accessed May 29, 2006).

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. "Contemporary Forms of Slavery." January 1, 2006. 〈〉 (accessed May 29, 2006).

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League of Nations Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery

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