Mid-term review - Performing the 'sacred trust' in the Pacific: Australian and Japanese experiences with the League of Nations mandates system, 1920-1941

Mr Danton Leary (PAH, CHL)

Following the First World War the legitimacy of colonial empires was brought into serious question globally. On the crest of this so-called "Wilsonian moment" the former Ottoman and German colonies were transferred to Allied control, not through colonial annexation, but as League of Nations mandated territories and placed under the observation of the League's Permanent Mandates Commission (PMC). As part of the Versailles Treaty arrangements Australia and Japan were given control over Germany's former New Guinea colony. Between 1920 and the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941 Japan ruled the Caroline, Mariana and Marshall Islands and Australia ruled New Guinea as mandated territories. As mandatory powers it was Japan and Australia's duty to govern these territories in accordance with Article 22 of the League's Covenant and their respective mandate agreements as a 'sacred trust of civilisation' ensuring the 'well-being and development' of the indigenous populations under their charge. The vagueness of this 'sacred trust' allowed great room for interpretation and Japan and Australia governed their mandates very differently, all the while equally insisting on their adherence to the word and spirit of the system. What unified Australia and Japan in their experiences as mandatory powers was their common need to deal with the League's oversight body, the PMC, in their attempts to gain international legitimacy for their rule. In this Mid-Term Review I briefly outline this topic and examine the significance of the League's oversight framework and the concept of the 'sacred trust' on the differing policy and rhetorical strategies implemented by Australia and Japan in their performances as mandatory powers.

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Updated:  27 November 2018/Responsible Officer:  JI Management Group/Page Contact:  Japan Institute