Wheatley, Natasha. “Mandatory Interpretation: Legal Hermeneutics and the New International Order in Arab and Jewish Petitions to the League of Nations.” Past and Present 227 (2015): 205-48.
Where did the edifices of Paris, 1919, crumble? Scholars of the topic have traditionally based their histories on high diplomacy, hanging narratives around the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 or the Munich crisis of 1938. Yet the creeping lapse of the League’s laws and treaties played out in other forums and registers as well.
Approaching the League’s order from below, it is clear first that the ‘new world order’ of 1919 spawned new reading publics for international law and a new culture of international hermeneutic activism. The League’s legal articulation of legitimate colonial rule and theoretical dilution of sovereignty turned the text of the Mandate for Palestine itself into the terrain of politics. Petitioners’ probing exploration of this terrain broadened the cast of characters invested in questions of international order. Secondly, shifting strategies of appeal reflected altered understandings of the nature and authority of the text and its keeper, the League. If a positivist style of claim-making dominated the mid 1920s, with petitioners looking to leverage the projected power of the mandate text, then the crisis that began in the late 1920s engendered a change in that style, as petitioners communicated scepticism about the text, and the League’s policing of it, in their interpretative constructions. The fragility and precariousness ascribed to the law indicated the fraught nature of its operation on the ground. While the text became less plausible as law to the disfranchised Palestinian Arabs, devoid of the characteristics that make law useful, Zionist petitioners clung insistently and creatively to this increasingly brittle enunciation of their national rights, even as they, too, hedged their bets in the invocation of alternative sources of right.
To be sure, petitioning reflected rather than caused that decline in the League’s legal usefulness: the ignoble fate of the Mandate for Palestine was driven by the dialectic of discriminatory policy and violence, and to some extent by the PMC’s handling of the case, just as the broader story of the League’s enfeeblement was shaped by forces beyond the mandate system. But if petitioners shaped the development of the PMC’s jurisdiction, they were also progenitors of a style of international legal politics that would only grow in importance as the twentieth century progressed.
This style juxtaposed the pieties of international law with the denial of rights that characterized European colonialism. With the subsequent 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this mode of politics expanded into a global debate about the application of such rights in Europe’s colonies. In the case at hand, petitioners compared the declared nature of the League’s order with the facts of British rule. Taking up the ‘political name’ ascribed to them in the mandate system, petitioners tested out the reality and scope of the rights announced in the covenant and in mandate law. The difference between the rights proclaimed and their limited sphere of operation was not only ‘a sign of disjunction proving that the rights are either void or tautological’, as the philosopher Jacques Rancière argued regarding the non-universal subjects of ‘the rights of man’. Rather, that difference worked as a space in which political subjectivities were formed: ‘political names are litigious names, names whose extension and comprehension are uncertain and which open for that reason the space of a test or verification’. Building cases for verification, petitioners confronted ‘inscriptions of rights’ with ‘situations of denial; they put together the world where those rights are valid and the world where they are not’. ‘Putting together’ a world of rights and one of rightlessness, petitions capture the League as a forum for international, non-diplomatic politics in which the acquisition and recognition of rights across colonial distributions of power were routinely probed and challenged. In their litigious interpretations, petitioners combined those two worlds together in the fabric of the law, in the knot of syntax, grammar and sense.