Minority Treaties
Minority Treaties refer to the treaties
A treaty is an express agreement under international law entered into by actors in international law, namely sovereign states and international organizations. A treaty may also be known as an agreement, protocol, covenant, convention or exchange of letters, among other terms...

, League of Nations Mandates
League of Nations mandate
A League of Nations mandate was a legal status for certain territories transferred from the control of one country to another following World War I, or the legal instruments that contained the internationally agreed-upon terms for administering the territory on behalf of the League...

, and unilateral declarations made by countries applying for membership in the League of Nations and United Nations. Most of the treaties entered into force as a result of the Paris Peace Conference
Paris Peace Conference, 1919
The Paris Peace Conference was the meeting of the Allied victors following the end of World War I to set the peace terms for the defeated Central Powers following the armistices of 1918. It took place in Paris in 1919 and involved diplomats from more than 32 countries and nationalities...


The treaties conferred basic rights on all the inhabitants of the country without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race or religion and protected the rights of all nationals of the country who differed in race, religion, or language from the majority of the inhabitants of the country. The country concerned had to acknowledge the clauses of the treaty: as fundamental laws of state; and as obligations of international concern placed under the guarantee of the League of Nations, or United Nations.


The protection of religious and minority rights had been a matter of international concern and the subject of protections ever since the days of the Peace of Westphalia. The concept of granting title to a territory on the basis of minority rights treaties started in the 1870s with Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania.

At the Versailles Peace Conference the Supreme Council established 'The Committee on New States and for The Protection of Minorities'. All the new successor states were compelled to sign minority rights treaties as a precondition of diplomatic recognition. It was agreed that although the new States had been recognized, they had not been 'created' before the signatures of the final Peace Treaties. Clemenceau noted in an aide-memoire attached to the Polish treaty that the minority protections were consistent with diplomatic precedent:

The new treaties gave minorities the right to appeal directly to the League or UN General Assembly. In the case of the Mandates and the UN Partition Plan for Palestine compromissory clauses provide for the International Court's jurisdiction. The victorious powers
Allies of World War I
The Entente Powers were the countries at war with the Central Powers during World War I. The members of the Triple Entente were the United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire; Italy entered the war on their side in 1915...

 attempted to ensure the stable development of the region between defeated Germany and Soviet Russia
Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic
The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic , commonly referred to as Soviet Russia, Bolshevik Russia, or simply Russia, was the largest, most populous and economically developed republic in the former Soviet Union....

, a region characterized by the existence of many ethnic groups and the emergence of new nations. The idea behind the Minority Treaties was that by subjecting those countries to the scrutiny of others and to the threat of sanction
International sanctions
International sanctions are actions taken by countries against others for political reasons, either unilaterally or multilaterally.There are several types of sanctions....

 and intervention
Interventionism (politics)
Interventionism is a term for a policy of non-defensive activity undertaken by a nation-state, or other geo-political jurisdiction of a lesser or greater nature, to manipulate an economy or society...

 from the newly created international body, the League of Nations, the rights of minorities would be safeguarded.

As with most of the principals adopted by the League, the Minorities Treaties were a part of the Wilsonian
Woodrow Wilson
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was the 28th President of the United States, from 1913 to 1921. A leader of the Progressive Movement, he served as President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, and then as the Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913...

Idealism (international relations)
In the American study of international relations, idealism usually refers to the school of thought personified in American diplomatic history by Woodrow Wilson, such that it is sometimes referred to as Wilsonianism, or Wilsonian Idealism. Idealism holds that a state should make its internal...

 approach to international relations, and as with the League itself, the Minority Treaties were increasingly ignored by the respective governments, with the entire system mostly collapsing in the late 1930s. Despite the political failure they remained the basis of international law. After World War II the legal principles were incorporated in the UN Charter and a host of international human rights treaties.

Many international law norms and customary practices developed in the inter-war years by the League of Nations are still in use today. The procedures for managing intrastate and inter-ethnic issues include international supervision, regional economic unions, minority protection, plebiscites, and territorial partition. The Palestine and Bosnian Partition Plans and European Union practice are modern examples of conditioning recognition of statehood on human rights, democracy, and minority protection guarantees.

Bilateral treaties

There were several bilateral
Bilateralism consists of the political, economic, or cultural relations between two sovereign states. For example, free trade agreements signed by two states are examples of bilateral treaties. It is in contrast to unilateralism or multilateralism, which refers to the conduct of diplomacy by a...

 Minority Treaties, each signed between one of the countries in question and the League. The treaties were signed between the League and some of the newly established nations: Poland
Poland , officially the Republic of Poland , is a country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north...

, Yugoslavia
Yugoslavia refers to three political entities that existed successively on the western part of the Balkans during most of the 20th century....

 (also known then as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes), Czechoslovakia
Czechoslovakia or Czecho-Slovakia was a sovereign state in Central Europe which existed from October 1918, when it declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until 1992...

. Similar treaties were also imposed on Greece
Greece , officially the Hellenic Republic , and historically Hellas or the Republic of Greece in English, is a country in southeastern Europe....

 and Entente
Allies of World War I
The Entente Powers were the countries at war with the Central Powers during World War I. The members of the Triple Entente were the United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire; Italy entered the war on their side in 1915...

-allied Romania
Romania is a country located at the crossroads of Central and Southeastern Europe, on the Lower Danube, within and outside the Carpathian arch, bordering on the Black Sea...

 in exchange for their territorial enlargement, and on some of the nations defeated in the First World War (Hungary
Hungary , officially the Republic of Hungary , is a landlocked country in Central Europe. It is situated in the Carpathian Basin and is bordered by Slovakia to the north, Ukraine and Romania to the east, Serbia and Croatia to the south, Slovenia to the southwest and Austria to the west. The...

, Austria
Austria , officially the Republic of Austria , is a landlocked country of roughly 8.4 million people in Central Europe. It is bordered by the Czech Republic and Germany to the north, Slovakia and Hungary to the east, Slovenia and Italy to the south, and Switzerland and Liechtenstein to the...

, Bulgaria
Bulgaria , officially the Republic of Bulgaria , is a parliamentary democracy within a unitary constitutional republic in Southeast Europe. The country borders Romania to the north, Serbia and Macedonia to the west, Greece and Turkey to the south, as well as the Black Sea to the east...

, Turkey
Turkey , known officially as the Republic of Turkey , is a Eurasian country located in Western Asia and in East Thrace in Southeastern Europe...

). At the same time, Albania
Albania , officially known as the Republic of Albania , is a country in Southeastern Europe, in the Balkans region. It is bordered by Montenegro to the northwest, Kosovo to the northeast, the Republic of Macedonia to the east and Greece to the south and southeast. It has a coast on the Adriatic Sea...

, Lithuania
Lithuania , officially the Republic of Lithuania is a country in Northern Europe, the biggest of the three Baltic states. It is situated along the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea, whereby to the west lie Sweden and Denmark...

, Estonia
Estonia , officially the Republic of Estonia , is a state in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. It is bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland, to the west by the Baltic Sea, to the south by Latvia , and to the east by Lake Peipsi and the Russian Federation . Across the Baltic Sea lies...

, Latvia
Latvia , officially the Republic of Latvia , is a country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. It is bordered to the north by Estonia , to the south by Lithuania , to the east by the Russian Federation , to the southeast by Belarus and shares maritime borders to the west with Sweden...

 and, outside of Europe, Iraq
Iraq ; officially the Republic of Iraq is a country in Western Asia spanning most of the northwestern end of the Zagros mountain range, the eastern part of the Syrian Desert and the northern part of the Arabian Desert....

 were persuaded to accept minority obligations as part of the terms of their admission to the League of Nations.

The Polish treaty (signed in June 1919, as the first of the Minority Treaties, and serving as the template for the subsequent ones) is often referred to as either the Little Treaty of Versailles
Little Treaty of Versailles
Little Treaty of Versailles or the Polish Minority Treaty was one of the bilateral Minority Treaties signed between minor powers and the League of Nations in the aftermath of the First World War. The Polish treaty was signed on 28 June 1919, the same day as the main Treaty of Versailles was signed...

or the Polish Minority Treaty; the Austrian, Czechoslovak and Yugoslavian treaties are referred to as Treaty of St Germain-en-Laye (1919); the Romanian treaty as the Treaty of Paris (1919), the Greek as the Treaty of Sèvres
Treaty of Sèvres
The Treaty of Sèvres was the peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and Allies at the end of World War I. The Treaty of Versailles was signed with Germany before this treaty to annul the German concessions including the economic rights and enterprises. Also, France, Great Britain and Italy...

(1920); the Hungarian as the Treaty of Trianon
Treaty of Trianon
The Treaty of Trianon was the peace agreement signed in 1920, at the end of World War I, between the Allies of World War I and Hungary . The treaty greatly redefined and reduced Hungary's borders. From its borders before World War I, it lost 72% of its territory, which was reduced from to...

(1920), the Bulgarian as the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine (1919), and the Turkish as the Treaty of Lausanne
Treaty of Lausanne
The Treaty of Lausanne was a peace treaty signed in Lausanne, Switzerland on 24 July 1923, that settled the Anatolian and East Thracian parts of the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. The treaty of Lausanne was ratified by the Greek government on 11 February 1924, by the Turkish government on 31...

(1923). Note that in most of the above cases the minority treaties were only one of many articles of the aforementioned treaties.

List of unilateral decalarations

  • Declaration by the government of Albania, issued October 2, 1921.
  • Declaration by the government of Latvia, issued July 19, 1923, heard by the Council of the League on September 11, 1923.
  • Declaration by the government of Lithuania, issued May 12, 1922.
  • Declaration by the government of Bulgaria, issued September 29, 1924.
  • Declaration by the government of Greece, issued September 29, 1924.

List of bilateral treaties

  • Austrian-Czechoslovak treaty, concluded June 7, 1920. Ratifications exchanged in Vienna, March 10, 1921. Registered in League of Nations Treaty Series on March 29, 1921. Supplemented by additional protocol relating to Carlsbad
    Karlovy Vary
    Karlovy Vary is a spa city situated in western Bohemia, Czech Republic, on the confluence of the rivers Ohře and Teplá, approximately west of Prague . It is named after King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, who founded the city in 1370...

     on August 23, 1920.

List of multilateral treaties

  • Treaty between the Principal Allied and Associated Powers and Roumania, signed at Paris on December 9, 1919 and went into effect on July 16, 1920. Ratified by the British government on January 12, 1921, by the Japanese government on January 25, 1921 and by the Italian government on March 3, 1921. Registered in League of Nations Treaty Series on July 21, 1921.


The Treaties were the cornerstone of the League's system of minorities. Their aim was to protect the minorities without alienating the majority of the countries population. The Council of the League (rather than the more encompassing Assembly) had the right and obligation to raise complaints of treaty violations. Individual Council members had the unique privilege of placing complaints on the agenda, even through the petitions for that could be send from any source. If the accused government and the League could not reach a satisfactory compromise, the final decision was referred to the Permanent Court of International Justice
Permanent Court of International Justice
The Permanent Court of International Justice, often called the World Court, was an international court attached to the League of Nations. Created in 1922 , the Court was initially met with a good reaction from states and academics alike, with many cases submitted to it for its first decade of...

 (in fact, most cases were solved by negotiations between affected governments before the International Court intervention).


The Minority Treaties, recognized as history's first minority treaties, were an important step in protection of minorities and recognition of human rights
Human rights
Human rights are "commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being." Human rights are thus conceived as universal and egalitarian . These rights may exist as natural rights or as legal rights, in both national...

, bringing the subject to an international forum. In them, for the first time, states and international communities recognized that there are people living outside normal legal protection and who required an additional guarantee of their elementary rights from an external body, as protection within individual states itself may not be sufficient. Among issues successfully resolved by the Minority Treaties was the Åland crisis
Åland crisis
The Åland crisis was one of the first issues put up for arbitration by the League of Nations on its formation. The Åland Islands' population's demand for self-determination was not met and sovereignty over the islands was retained by Finland, but international guarantees were given to allow the...


Nonetheless, the treaties were also subject to past and present criticism. The countries subject to the treaties saw it as limiting their sovereignty
Sovereignty is the quality of having supreme, independent authority over a geographic area, such as a territory. It can be found in a power to rule and make law that rests on a political fact for which no purely legal explanation can be provided...

 and infringing their right for self-determination
Self-determination is the principle in international law that nations have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status with no external compulsion or external interference...

, as the League was allowed to influence national, religious and educational policy in those countries, and suggesting that they were not competent enough to deal with their internal matters. Further criticism centered around the treaties not being obligatory for the established countries (like France, Germany, United Kingdom or Russia). The Western countries, who dictated the treaties in the aftermath of the First World War, saw minority safeguards as unnecessary for themselves, and trusted that they could fulfill the "standard of civilization". It was the new Central and Eastern European countries that were not trusted to respect those rights, and, of course, Bolshevik Russia, still in the throes of the Russian Revolution, was a separate case.

This inequality further offended the smaller countries. Finally, this inequality also meant that the minority rights were not seen as a universal right; it was exclusively a foreign policy issue, and thus populations that had no state to back up their claims were relatively disadvantaged when compared to ones backed up by a powerful state or group of interests.

With the decline of League of Nations
League of Nations
The League of Nations was an intergovernmental organization founded as a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War. It was the first permanent international organization whose principal mission was to maintain world peace...

 in the 1930s, the treaties were increasingly considered unenforceable and useless. The League Council, charged with enforcing the various minority treaties, often failed to act upon complaints from minorities. There was an unwritten rule that state policies aimed at the cultural assimilation
Cultural assimilation
Cultural assimilation is a socio-political response to demographic multi-ethnicity that supports or promotes the assimilation of ethnic minorities into the dominant culture. The term assimilation is often used with regard to immigrants and various ethnic groups who have settled in a new land. New...

 of minorities should be ignored as the "minor evil" with regard to the rights enshrined in the Minority Treaties when those policies were seen as guaranteeing the internal stability of the state concerned.

When the Council did review cases, the reviews were commonly dominated by the countries whose ethnic groups were affected and that tried not only to resolve the problem of mistreatment of their minorities but also score other political goals on the international scene, sometimes even sacrificing the very minority in question (German and Hungarian governments are recognized as having abused the system the most). Also, of course, the League, lacking its own army, could not coerce any state to adhere to its recommendations.

Even before Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician and the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party , commonly referred to as the Nazi Party). He was Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and head of state from 1934 to 1945...

 seized control of Germany in 1933, the problems with the Minority Treaties were evident. Various European governments continued to abuse minorities, the latter loudly protested, their complains were exploited by interested parties with ulterior motives, and the League interfered as little as possible. The system suffered an apparent death blow with Poland's rejection of its treaty in 1934.

Renewed interest

Judge Sir Hersch Lauterpacht explained the legal effectiveness of the operation of this system of minority protection treaties. He pointed out the Court's determination to discourage the evasion of these international obligations, and its repeated affirmation of

The United Nations established a formal minority rights protection system as an integral part of the Plan for the Future Government of Palestine.

The status of the treaties was questioned by the United Nations Secretariat
United Nations Secretariat
The United Nations Secretariat is one of the five principal organs of the United Nations and it is headed by the United Nations Secretary-General, assisted by a staff of international civil servants worldwide. It provides studies, information, and facilities needed by United Nations bodies for...

 in 1950, but a modern-day Chairman-Rapporteur of the UN Working Group on Minorities subsequently advised that no competent UN organ had made any decision which that extinguish the obligations under those instruments. He added that it was doubtful whether that could even be done by the United Nations. The provision that 'No discrimination of any kind shall be made between the inhabitants on the ground of race, religion, language or sex.' is enshrined in a multitude of international human rights conventions and the UN Charter itself.

Li-ann Thio, a professor of international and human rights law at the National University of Singapore noted that many international law norms and customary practices developed in the inter-war years by the League of Nations are still in use today. She specifically addressed the procedures for managing intrastate and inter-ethnic issues through (1) international supervision, (2)supranational integration, (3)minority protection, (4)plebiscites, and (5)partitions. She cited the Palestine and Bosnian Partition Plans and 1990s European practice as examples of conditioning recognition of statehood on human rights, democracy, and minority protection guarantees.

The International Court of Justice performed a legal analysis of the status of the territory of Palestine in order to determine the applicable law, before seeking to establish whether that law had been breached. The Court said that in addition to the general guarantees of freedom of movement
under Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, account had to be taken of specific guarantees of access to the Christian, Jewish and Islamic Holy Places. It noted that minority and religious rights had been placed under international guarantee by Article 62 of the Treaty of Berlin, 13 July 1878, and observed that those "existing rights" had been preserved in accordance with the safeguarding provisions of Article 13 of the League of Nations Mandate and a chapter of General Assembly resolution 181 (II) on the future government of Palestine.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly during its 62nd session at UN Headquarters in New York City on 13 September 2007....

 recognized the urgent need to respect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples affirmed in treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements with States. It also noted that the rights affirmed in treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements between States and indigenous peoples are, in some situations, matters of international concern, interest, responsibility and character. In many instances the minority rights treaties provided for arbitration and granted the International Court of Justice jurisdiction to resolve disputes.

See also

  • Treaty of Berlin (1878) - granting special rights and protection to some minorities under Ottoman Empire
    Ottoman Empire
    The Ottoman EmpireIt was usually referred to as the "Ottoman Empire", the "Turkish Empire", the "Ottoman Caliphate" or more commonly "Turkey" by its contemporaries...

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly . The Declaration arose directly from the experience of the Second World War and represents the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled...

     (1948) - declaration of United Nations
    United Nations
    The United Nations is an international organization whose stated aims are facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and achievement of world peace...

    , successor of the League of Nations

Further reading

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