Many a Petition Deferred


Following the First World War, the League of Nations emerged as the dominant force in the growing sphere of international organizations. Ostensibly founded on “Wilsonian” principles like self-determination and sovereignty, the League was inundated with thousands of petitions from people everywhere under colonial or mandate rule. The global Syrian-Lebanese community was no exception. In fact, telegrams and letters concerning Syria and Palestine made up nearly 80 percent of all registered petitions to the League’s Permanent Mandates Commission (PMC) between 1928 and 1940.[1]
           
The majority of these petitions tell a tale of marginalized voices demanding independence and sovereignty in the face of French misrule.  Alongside these political claims, one can also glimpse a myriad of more personal and individual narratives that remain otherwise hidden amidst the numerous documents at the League of Nations archives. One such story is that of “Monsieur” Louis Yusuf Ghaleb of Bikfaya, Lebanon. Ghaleb’s petitions to the PMC and the French mandatory power spanned a period of a nearly a decade between the years 1920-1929. In the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution, a time when questions of citizenship and collective rights remained in flux, Ghaleb’s endeavors testify to the ways in which everyday subalterns viewed the League as a new space for asserting individual agency. While narratives of “imagined nationalisms” abound, Ghaleb’s attempt to gain compensation for war losses as a person of Lebanese origin in Serbia demonstrates the practical ways everyday people approached the question of their citizenship and nationality.
           
We first come across our protagonist writing to the League of Nations from Leskovac, Serbia in late 1925. According to Ghaleb, he was in living in Serbia during the First World War when he had incurred significant losses and damage brought about by the Bulgarians. Thereafter, Ghaleb read in the newspapers that foreigners in Serbia affected by the war should address their claims to the League of Nations. With the Treaty of Neuilly in 1919, Bulgaria was obligated to pay sizable reparations to Yugoslavia and Romania. Ghaleb, a Lebanese Christian, most likely felt entitled to a portion of these funds under the presumption that the French guaranteed him “protected” status. He asserted that he had incurred stolen and damaged property worth 327,000 francs. According to Ghaleb, this sum only reflected damages which took place in Serbia, and neither included restitution for the trees on his property in Lebanon taken down by the Turks, nor the money which was lost by the Turkish post that he attempted to send to his wife and children, eventually causing them to parish.

Ghaleb hoped to send his material directly to the PMC. According to the official “Rules of Procedure,” petitions coming from inside mandated territories would have to be forwarded to the League of Nations through the mandatory government. A loophole existed, however, for petitions concerning the nature of the mandate but which came from outside the mandatory territory. Such petitions could be addressed directly to the League.
           
But because the PMC regarded Ghaleb’s petition as not concerning the nature of the mandate itself, it would still have to pass through French hands. In response, Ghaleb informed the League that he had already made his claim known to the French government through 15 petitions between the years 1920-1925, which addressed the president of the French republic, the minister of foreign affairs, the government of Greater Lebanon, and the French High Commissioner in Beirut. 
           
Yet, Ghaleb’s bid for his share in war claims seemed to go unheard. He blamed the French government for not doing what it should to “safeguard the rights of the Lebanese people,” “for leaving some to die while allowing others to live.” Not only was Ghaleb’s petition ignored, but the French were now in possession of his official documents. As a result, when Ghaleb decided to apply for Serbian citizenship – perhaps in the hopes of securing compensation – he even traveled to Paris to "fetch" his documents. Speaking to a wider post-Ottoman context of fluid and mutable identities, Ghaleb’s approach to citizenship was malleable and personal. He would pursue his material well-being regardless of his self-perceived national identity.  Yet he failed to retrieve his official papers, and consequently missed the window of opportunity (1919-1924) to apply for Serbian citizenship.    
       
For these reasons, Ghaleb would continue to send his petitions directly to the League’s Secretariat, who he hoped would take all the necessary measures to ensure “justice” and due diligence. As the League never received word of this petition from the French government, the Chairman of the PMC brought Ghaleb’s case to the attention of the French representative, Robert de Caix, at the general meeting in July of 1927.
           
After this prompting, de Caix agreed to consider Ghaleb’s case. Several months later, after the French had translated and studied Ghaleb’s petitions, they sent the papers back to the Secretariat with the observation that “in its opinion, M. Ghaleb, who is now living in Serbia, should apply directly to the League of Nations.”

So, to recapitulate the bureaucratic cartwheels Ghaleb was subjected to: the PMCtold Ghaleb he had to send his claim to the French, and the French told Ghaleb to send his claim to the PMC.  
           
But before yet another transfer of responsibility, the French did give an opinion on the case, based on part on the Treaty of Lausanne, famous for establishing Turkey's modern borders in 1923. It also significantly enabled Europeans to seize former Ottoman assets in continental banking institutions and use them to pay indemnities to European citizens. Unfortunately for Ghaleb, no such agreement provided compensation to former Ottoman citizens. Moreover, no agreement existed between France and Serbia providing compensation to citizens of French mandates, like Ghaleb. 

So the French concluded that Ghaleb’s specific case could really only be addressed by Lebanese law. But this didn’t help Ghaleb either. As Lebanon emerged from the devastation of war and famine, there was hardly enough in the budget to cover the reconstruction of geographic Lebanon itself, let alone compensating someone like Ghaleb, hundreds of miles away. In this case, being Lebanese meant being left out.
           
Ghaleb’s translated petitions were finally forwarded to the PMC for official consideration in 1928. But the man who addressed letters to the president of France from Serbia was nothing if not persistent. Before the PMC's final ruling, Ghaleb wrote from Bikfaya, Lebanon where he returned to take care of his home and attend to his business interests, including a silk and cotton factory. Yet even after Ghaleb returned to his putative home, authorities questioned him on a matter that had been taken for granted up to that point: his Lebanese identity.  “With regard to my war claims and all the correspondence that has passed between us, it is now stated that the question of my Syrian or Lebanese nationality comes decisively into question,” Ghaleb wrote, according to an English translation by the PMC.  “But this point was not disputed by the authorities when my petition came to the Lebanese Government,” he complained. He concluded in a tone that tapped into the discourse of the post-war order to hold France and the League accountable, writing, “I address myself to you again with all respect, since I am confident your desire is to uphold all that is good and salutary for mankind and not what is evil and treacherous.”

This may have been an overly hopeful estimation. In the thirteenth session of the PMC in 1928, the Dutch claims investigator and vice-chairman of the PMC, M. Van Rees concluded that Ghaleb could not prove that he attempted to apply for Lebanese nationality under article 34 of the Treaty of Lausanne. In any case, whether or not he was Lebanese mattered not because the incidents to which Ghaleb referred took place before the mandates system was even in place. According to Van Rees, the Commission was not qualified to hear Ghaleb’s petition, thus concluding a long tale of passing the buck.  
               
Despite the hapless nature of Ghaleb’s efforts, his story illustrates the creative ways people of the post-Ottoman period negotiated new international structures of power. The League failed as a supranational peacekeeping body. Premised on imperialism as it was, the League’s PMC, acting as an international space for petitions, almost always ruled in favor of the mandatory power when considering petitions. Ghaleb, like many others, didn’t get the result he wanted. But this doesn’t mean his claims weren’t productive in any way. Ghaleb’s participation in the petitioning process profoundly shaped his fate. It took him from Serbia to France to Serbia and back to Lebanon. It prompted him to consider taking Serbian citizenship and forced him to prove his Lebanese nationality. And through all of these events, he utilized a language that invoked concepts like justice, rights, citizenship, and international law. It is no exaggeration to say, then, that Ghaleb, and the many petitioners like him, played a formative role in the proliferation of the norms associated with the new international order of the post-war period.
















Source: League of Nations Archive, Carton R 61, 1/63601/22099.



[1] See Susan Pedersen, "Samoa on the World Stage: Petitions and Peoples before the Mandates Commission of the League of Nations." The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 40.2 (2012): 237.
Also see Susan Pedersen,"Back to the League of Nations." 
The American Historical Review 112.4 (2007): 1091-1117.

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