League of Nations Secretariat

Overview of the Secretariat

The League of Nations (1919-1946) was the first international organization with a global scope and membership tasked with the general maintenance of peaceful relations between the world’s empires and nations. Its general features were hammered out at the Paris Peace Conference following the First World War – the Council, the Assembly and the Secretariat being its main institutions. The Council had traits reminiscent of the old European Concert and was meant to be an executive of the great powers directing the business of the Assembly. The Assembly was to be a deliberative and decisional parliament of delegates from all member states, with competencies within the domain of the League on par with the Council. Beyond this, the Assembly had special competencies, such as admitting new members, electing non-permanent members to the Council and (together with the Council) electing judges for the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ). While the relationship between the Assembly and the Council was mostly norms-based, the Assembly was meant to be the driving force of the League’s work.

in Grandjean, Martin (2017). "Analisi e visualizzazioni delle reti in storia. L’esempio della cooperazione intellettuale della Società delle Nazioni". Memoria e Ricerca (2): 371-393. DOI:10.14647/87204

The League Secretariat was, until 1940, divided into several functional sections, with specific policy areas and often servicing commissions and committees, and an internal administration, for the operation of the Secretariat as an institution. To this came several external offices, like the Liaison Offices of the Information Section, which were staffed by the League Secretariat. In total, some 3700 staff worked at the League Secretariat throughout its lifespan (1919-1947), with the peak being reached in 1930, with 1198 employees.

The role of the Secretariat

The least well-defined body of the three was the Secretariat. This was the only permanent body of the League, and it was – as an administrative unit – charged with the preparation of the agenda of the Assembly and Council; the execution and monitoring of the decisions taken by the same two bodies; and reporting on the League’s activities both internally and externally. It was a civil service of sorts, but without the constitutional oversight that a parliament and government would have provided in a national context. The composition of the League Secretariat was not defined in the Covenant, beyond the responsibilities the organization was charged with, and some particular requirements.

The division

The Secretariat had a functional division, rather than a national or some other division. So, there was a Transit Section, dealing with that functionally delimited area, and not a French or Dutch Section. Second, and in line with this, the officials were to be truly international. The international civil servant was to be loyal to the cause of the League of Nations and not his or her home government (or some other polity). Functional division of labour and international loyalty would become the trademark of international public administration but was then – and now – always balanced with other considerations. Being an inter-governmental organization, the League of Nations was deeply dependant on the trust and support of the member states. Thus, meritocratic recruitment of staff was always balanced with the necessity to incorporate national interests of representability. For the great powers, this was an unspoken requirement.