The Permanent Court of International Justice in the 1920s

One of the best, and longest-lasting, things to come out of the 1919 peace settlement was the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ). 

The Court first sat on 30 January 1922 at the Peace Palace, The Hague.  It had nine judges sat, along with three deputies.  After some preliminary sessions to establish procedure and appoint officers, the court first sat to decide cases on 15 June.

Looking back nearly a century, the modern student might be tempted to decide that the court seems to have dealt with very few cases (just 30 in the whole of the 1920s), and that many of the cases themselves seem concerned with minor matters (for example the Tunis-Morocco nationality question, 1923).


1.   It is important to realize that there had never been anything like the PCIJ before; it was the first body to be internationally accepted as being able to make authoritative pronouncements on matters of international law (before, it had been a free-for-all).  This was a major step forward in international relations.

2.   Much of the work of the PCIJ in the 1920s was concerned with interpreting and enforcing the Treaty of Versailles.

3.   Towards the end of the 1920s, however, the PCIJ began to be consulted on matters of international law BEYOND the peace treaties; this was an amazing development, and the start of true ‘international law’.

4.   Some of the PCIJ’s decisions were of international and lasting significance – they set precedents for other courts (e.g. the Lotus Case, 1927, is still cited today).

The PCIJ did have limitations – it could only judge between appellants when they were both countries (individuals could not come before the PCIJ), and only where both sides willingly put their case before the court.  And it had one failure - the Eastern Carelia question (1923), because the Soviet Union refused to accept the authority of the Court.


So – what did the PCIJ do?


1.   Enforced the peace treaties

2.   Interpreted the peace treaties

3.   Dealt with complaints

4.   Protected minorities

But also, towards the end of the 1920s, however, the PCIJ began to be consulted on

5.   Matters of international law BEYOND the peace treaties





1.  Enforced the peace treaties:


S.S. Wimbledon Case

The Treaty of Versailles had said that the Kiel Canal in Germany had to be open to all shipping.  The French and German governments came to the PCIJ because Germany had stopped the SS Wimbledon using the canal, because it was carrying weapons to Poland.

The Court ruled that Germany was wrong to close the Canal to the SS Wimbledon, and ordered the German government to pay 140,000 francs reparations to France.


Jaworznia Question

The Polish and Czech governments questioned the borderline proposed by the League’s Council of Ambassadors; the disputed border was a 10-mile section in the Jaworzina district.

The PCIJ ruled that the Conference of Ambassadors had the right to make a decision.


Monastery of Saint-Naoum Question

The Yugoslavian government questioned the decision of the League’s Council of Ambassadors to place the monastery in Albania.

The PCIJ upheld the decision of the Conference of Ambassadors.


International Labour Organisation

The PCIJ dealt with a number of cases where countries questioned the authority of the ILO.

In every case, the PCIJ ruled that the ILO had the competence given it by the Treaty of Versailles, e.g.:

To make judgements about employment in agriculture

To make rules about working practices which applied to employers as well as employees


Treaty of Lausanne Question

The Turkish government questioned the border set by the League between Turkey and British-controlled Iraq.

The PCIJ ruled that the League of Nations had the right to make a decision.


2.  Interpreted the peace treaties:


Interpretation of the Treaty of Neuilly Case

Greek government asked if the reparations granted by the treaty against Bulgaria included acts committed outside Bulgaria, and acts against persons (as well as acts against property). 

The PCIJ ruled that Bulgaria should pay reparations for both acts committed outside Bulgaria, and acts against persons.


Polish Postal Service in Danzig Question,

The Treaty of Versailles gave Poland the right to run a Post Office in the free city of Danzig.  But when the Poles started installing collection boxes and delivering post, the city of Danzig claimed that the Treaty gave them only the right to have a Post office building, not the right to run a postal service.

The PCIJ ruled that the Treaty meant a postal service, not just a Post office building.


Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations Case

In order to avoid civil war, the League had ordered that Greek nationals living in Turkey, and Turkish nationals living in Greece, should be made to go home, with the exception of Greek nationals who were ‘established’ in the Turkish city of Constantinople.  But what was ‘established’?

The PCIJ ruled that, to be considered ‘established’, a person must have gone to live in Constantinople before 1918.

1926 & 1929

River authorities

The River Danube (1926) and the River Oder (1929)

The PCIJ made decisions on where the International River Commission’s authority ended.


Jurisdiction of Danzig Courts

In a complicated case, the government of the free city of Danzig disputed the right of former employees (who now worked for the Polish government) to have their complaints against the Danzig government heard in Polish courts.

The PCIJ ruled that the Danzig courts did have the authority to decide.


Case of the Free Zones of Upper Savoy and the District Of Gex

The Italian government complained that the French customs barrier was not on the designated border.

The PCIJ agreed, and made France withdraw her customs post.


3.  Dealt with complaints arising out of the way countries were interpreting the treaties:


Acquisition of Polish Nationality Question

The Polish Government was refusing to accept that people, who had formerly been German nationals, had acquired Polish nationality until it said so.

The PCIJ found against the Polish govt, and at the same time in its judgement repeated the provisions in the Treaty of Versailles requiring fair treatment of minorities.


German Settlers Question

The Polish government was refusing to recognize land leases awarded by the German government (in areas which had previously belonged to Germany before the Treaty of Versailles) to German nationals who have now become Polish subjects.

The PCIJ decided that the Polish government was bound to honour agreements made before 1918 by the German government.


Mavrommatis Palestine Concessions Case

The Greek government complained that the British government in Palestine was refusing to honor contracts (to set up lighting and water and tramways in the city of Jerusalem) awarded before 1914 to a Greek citizen, Mr Mavrommatis. 

The PCIJ ruled that Mr Mavrommatis had the right to have his contracts ‘readapted’, but refused to award the Greek government damages.


4.  Protected minorities:


German Interests in Polish Upper Silesia

The German government complained that the Polish government had been taking over land owned by Germans in the part of Upper Silesia given to Poland after the Treaty of Versailles.

The PCIJ found that the Polish government had no right to do so, and ordered the Poles to return the land.


Case Concerning the Factory at Chorzow

The German government complained that the Polish government had taken over a factory owned by a German company in the part of Upper Silesia given to Poland after the Treaty of Versailles.

The PCIJ found that the Polish government had no right to do so, and ordered the Poles to pay compensation.


Minority schools in Upper Silesia

The German government complained that the Poles were discriminating against German-language schools in the part of Upper Silesia given to Poland after the Treaty of Versailles.

The PCIJ asserted the right to minority Germans schools, and agreed that they had noticed a hostility from the Polish government which was contrary to the rights of minorities guaranteed by the Treaty of Versailles.  However, it found no actual instances of discrimination.


Towards the end of the 1920s, however, the PCIJ began to be consulted on

5.  Matters of international law BEYOND the peace treaties:


Belgium-China Case

A Treaty of 1865, between China and Belgium, included clauses which it said could be ‘denounced’ (i.e. cancelled) after 10 years.  In 1926, the Chinese government denounced these clauses.  Belgium complained to the PCIJ, claiming that the treaty did not give China the right to do so without negotiating with the Belgian government.

The case came before the PCIJ six times, before the Belgian government withdrew it case.


Lotus Case

The French government complained to the PCIJ when the Turks put a French captain who had sank a Turkish steamer on trial for negligence.  The French claimed that Turkey did not have that right since the incident had happened on the High Seas.

The PCIJ ruled that the Turks DID have the right, even though the incident had not happened in Turkish waters.


Repayment of loans

Complaints were brought by the French government against the governments of Brazil and Serbia, which had started repaying the interest on loans in government bonds.

The PCIJ ruled that interest had to be paid in currency, and at the exchange rates of the time.



Other cases:


Tunis-Morocco Nationality Question

A very obscure case about whether the French and Tunisian government had the right to enforce rules about the nationality of people born in Morocco on British citizens.

The PCIJ ruled that the dispute WAS a matter of international law, but did not make a ruling on the case because it had not been asked to do so.  In the end, the French and British governments sorted the matter out themselves


Eastern Carelia Question

The Finnish government claimed that the Soviet government had broken the promise it had made in the Treaty of Dorpat (1920) to allow Eastern Carelia to be self-governing.

The PCIJ was unable to make a decision because the Soviet government refused to attend the court or acknowledge its authority.