The League of Nations did not stop its activities during the Second World War, although the conflict significantly affected its work. The Secretariat remained in Geneva, while some staff worked in offices established in London, Washington, D.C., and on the campus of Princeton University in the United States.
When the UN Charter came into existence on 24 October 1945, the League of Nations was still active. For a few months, the two organizations coexisted. In April 1946, 35 of the 46 Member States met in Geneva to formally approve the dissolution of the League.
"It was not the League which failed. It was not its principles which were found wanting. It was the nations which neglected it. It was the Governments which abandoned it."
Joseph Paul-Boncour, Delegate of France, during the last session of the Assembly in April 1946
This sentiment was shared by many observers at that time. A few months later (in September 1946), Winston Churchill would declare: “[T]he League did not fail because of its principles or conceptions. It failed because those principles were deserted by those states which brought it into being, because the governments of those states feared to face the facts and act while time remained.”
During the last session of the Assembly, Andres Pastoriza, the delegate of the Dominican Republic, highlighted the legacy of the League: “Today no one denies that the League of Nations rendered a useful service to humanity and largely contributed to the creation of a spirit of active co-operation for the promotion of human rights, for a cultural exchange amongst the nations, for the satisfactory solution of international judicial disputes, for the advancement of the interests of labour, for the control of dangerous drugs, for the exchange of useful information in the field of health and in connection with certain economic and financial questions.” Although the League failed to fulfill its mandate, the experience gained played an important role in laying down the foundations of the international system built after the Second World War.
The founding of the United Nations
The League’s Heritage
The United Nations officially has no connection with the League of Nations. However, some assets – like the League’s headquarters in Geneva, the Palais des Nations – were transferred to the UN. In some cases, activities managed by the League were also taken over by the United Nations or by organs part of the UN system. For instance, the work of the League in fields such as the protection of refugees, global health, the fight against drug trafficking, intellectual cooperation, and social and economic development paved way for the activities of the United Nations. Not surprisingly, some former League staff and diplomats who worked with the League played a significant role in the formative years of the United Nations.
Despite similarities, the functioning of the League of Nations and the United Nations are very different. Among the major differences are the rule of unanimity at the League of Nations versus the rule of the majority at the UN or the UN Security Council’s competence to take binding decisions under certain circumstances. However, as Robert Cecil remarked “but for the great experiment of the League, the United Nations could never come into existence”. Although it is too often associated with a mere failure, the League’s “great experiment” represents a crucial chapter in the history of modern multilateralism, and its legacy is still tangible today.