On this day, Ethiopia joins the League of Nations in Geneva, 100 years ago

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By Farid Bahri, Author and history teacher. Originally published at Ethiopia: A look back at 100 years of internationalism – The Africa Report.com

Ethiopia’s historic role in international diplomacy highlights its early engagement with international law in its fight against Italian aggression.

One hundred years ago, on 28 September 1923, Ethiopia joined the fledgling League of Nations, becoming the third African country to do so after the then-Union of South Africa, and Liberia, with the difference being that Ethiopia was an independent nation, never under the dominion of a foreign power.

The future looked prosperous until 1935 when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s dreams of conquest reached Ethiopia’s borders. Concerned with the Axis threat, the Ethiopians appealed to the League of Nations.

Adoua: Africa’s victory over Europe

The second day of March is a public holiday in Ethiopia, and with good reason: to commemorate the Battle of Adoua, set in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, near a village where the Italians were decimated in 1896.

This confrontation marked the first defeat of a European nation during the Age of Western Imperialism, a defeat that was twofold for the Italians: one on the military front and the other on the diplomatic front.

In its aggression, Rome had flouted the Treaty of Ucciali concluded seven years earlier between the Ethiopian Emperor, the Great Negus, Menelik II and the Italian King Victor Emmanuel III. Ethiopia, triumphant, garnered international respect by force of arms. Surrounded by Western colonies, it had no access to the sea. Nevertheless, Menelik II relied on internationalism, which meant adherence to the Brussels Convention Against Slavery and participation in the Universal Postal Union, among other things.

It is a unique case in Africa, while the Black continent fell region by region into Europe’s lap. Even now, the country owes its success to Menelik II.

There were three highlights in his reign: 1889 was the starting point for the unification of the Empire; 1894 saw the creation of the capital Addis Ababa; and finally, the victory of 1896 when Ethiopia became a sovereign state.

Surrounded by Western colonies, it had no access to the sea. Nevertheless, Menelik II relied on internationalism, which meant adherence to the Brussels Convention Against Slavery and participation in the Universal Postal Union, among other things.

Membership of the League of Nations

On 28 September 1923, Ethiopia joined the League of Nations as a free African nation in an almost entirely colonised Africa. Addis Ababa showed an early interest in this organisation, but chose to wait until 1923 for international legal procedural reasons.

Ethiopia was admitted by the unanimous vote of the League’s 45 members, itself a historical irony. Of the five permanent members, Italy was one of the most enthusiastic.

The League of Nations, the forerunner of the UN, was founded in Geneva in January 1920, the result of the peace treaties that followed the First World War.

The world body was made up of a General Assembly of member states, to which Ethiopia belonged, a Council made up of five permanent delegates (France, the UK, Italy, the US and Japan), then eight temporary members headed by a permanent secretariat. Unlike the UN, the League could not apply the sanctions it voted on against a State due to a lack of military enforcement.

“The League was therefore intended to remain a generous myth,” said historians Serge Bernstein and Pierre Milza. And herein the problem lies.

“In 1928, Mussolini extolled the virtues of Italian-Ethiopian friendship before the Senate before signing a friendship pact with Ethiopia in August. This treaty, signed for 20 years and renewable, provided for perpetual peace and friendship between the two countries,” said Milza.

Seven years later, Mussolini had forgotten his words. On 31 March 1936, after several months of fighting at the Battle of Maychew, 500,000 Italian soldiers occupied Ethiopia.

“Military occupiers experimented with the hubris of war, giving themselves over to the perception of the natives as inferiors lending itself to a particular brand of cruel conduct,” said historian Marie-Anne Matard-Bonucci.

This total defiance of international conventions would begin a long legal battle. Ethiopia lodged a complaint with the League of Nations; Italy was condemned; and economic sanctions followed, putting a heavy strain on the European country’s economy.

The new Negus, Haile Salassie, who continued his predecessor’s policy of modernisation and centralisation, took charge.

Selassie in Geneva

Without hesitation, Emperor Selassie went to Geneva and made his voice heard on the podium of the League of Nations on 30 June 1936, calling for justice and assistance against fascist Italy, the aggressor.

“I, Haile Selassie, I, Emperor of Ethiopia, am here today to demand justice, the justice that is due to my people, as well as the assistance that was promised to them eight months ago when 50 nations claimed that aggression had been committed in violation of international treaties. For a Head of State to address this assembly himself is a precedent. But it is also the very first time that a people have been the victim of such injustice and that they have been left, as is the case today, at the mercy of their aggressor,” he said, addressing the assembly in Amharic.

His brave and serene speech was marred by the whistle of Italian journalists and an unexpected power cut.

“It is the very existence of the League of Nations; it is the confidence that each State must place in international treaties; it is the value of the promises made to small States to respect and ensure respect for their integrity and independence,” he asserted.

A year and a half later, on 11 December 1937, Mussolini loudly slammed the door on the League’s face. For five years, international law did not prevail. With the outbreak of the Second World War and the Nazi-German alliance with Italy, the colonial cards were reshuffled.

“In 1941, when British troops allowed Haile Selassie back on the throne, he took the opportunity…to oust those of his opponents who had collaborated with the Italians…to create a salaried bureaucracy…this was a crucial period in the formation of the modern Ethiopian state,” said historian John Iliffe.

From the League of Nations to the UN

The “king of kings,” an unrepentant apostle of his country and a follower of internationalism, did not stop there. After the League’s demise during the Second World War, he devoted himself to the new United Nations organisation.

US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s tour of the Middle East in February 1945 included a meeting with Selassie. The emperor did not hesitate to send a delegation of Ethiopian diplomats to San Francisco to help establish the future UN.

Forty years after joining the League, on 6 October 1963, Emperor Selassie took to the podium of the United Nations General Assembly, recalling when he stood in front of the UN’s predecessor.

“At the time my words went unheeded, but history is there to bear witness to how justified the warning I issued in 1936 was. Today, I stand before the World Organisation of the United Nations, which has rid itself of the trappings of its discredited predecessor,” he said.

With this speech, 60 years ago, the old Ethiopian nation gave a lesson in modernity and internationalism to the rest of the world.

By Farid Bahri, Author and history teacher. Originally published at Ethiopia: A look back at 100 years of internationalism – The Africa Report.com