International Federation for Human Rights

Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’homme - History


-22nd of May 1922, France: while Europe is being rebuilt after the First World War, the International Federation of the Rights of Man and Citizen is created. Aline Ménard-Dorian, who holds a “Republican salon” in the Quartier Latin in Paris, is its first secretary general. In order to work towards reconciliation, the FIDH defines itself as “an international organisation for a right-based approach of peace” and adopts the German motto “war on war” (nie wieder krieg). This initiative comes above all from the League for the defence of the rights of man and citizen (LDH) in France and from the Bund Neues Vaterland (the “New Fatherland League”) in Germany. The LDH was launched in France in June 1898 by a former minister of Justice, Ludovic Trarieux, during the Alfred Dreyfus case, a Jewish army officer unfairly accused of spying for Germany. At this time, the organisation was led by academics and not politicians: its aim was not to change the law but to monitor it. But after Ludovic Trarieux, who fell sick, the new LDH president in 1903 was Francis de Hault de Préssensé, a Protestant bourgeois favouring Jean Jaurès’s ideas, a member of the Socialist Party since 1902, and the son of the first MP who had put forward an amnesty law for the communards. Under its leadership, the League fought for the separation of the Church and the State in 1905, and it advocated a public control on private religious schools. Close to the Radical Party, the LDH was also to support the left-wing government of Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau. It denounced the coercive policy of the minister of Home Affairs Georges Clémenceau and defended the freedom of expression of anarchists and socialist strikers, as well as the right wing royalist movement “Camelots du roi”. In 1911, the League asked for an arms reduction and opposed the extension of the military service to three years. Yet, under the conduct of Ferdinand Buisson from 1914 onwards, it approved the Government of National Unity against Germany during the First World War. On 7 January 1917 at the Trocadéro Piazza in Paris, explains Annette Becker, it thus organised a big demonstration to inform against German atrocities on civilians in the occupied territories of Belgium and Northern France. After 1918, it then pleaded for the rehabilitation of the Black Sea mutineers in 1922, and of the soldiers unfairly condemned by military tribunals in 1917. As for the Bund Neues Vaterland, it was created in 1914 by anti military activists and concerned citizens like Albert Enstein. Before it became the German League for the rights of man (Deutsche Liga für Menschenrechte) in January 1922, it was decimated in 1915 by the German Army, which accused it of “defeatism”, and four of its leaguers were killed in 1919 (three socialists and one republican officer). With the journalist Karl von Ossietzky, it got reorganized in 1921 and it took part in the Peace Cartel which, after the defeat, gathered 19 organisations and 30,000 members, not to mention the 500,000 members of the war mutilated league. In that prospect, the French and German LDH wanted to favour the disarmament and support the idea of strengthening the League of Nations by giving it an international police force able to intervene in conflicts. They would also encourage the constitution of the United States of Europe in order to reduce the economic tensions and to prevent risks of wars. In France, the LDH had proposed a League of Nations as soon as 1915 and it opposes the penalties imposed on Germany in the Versailles peace treaty. Likewise, it informs against the military occupation of the Ruhr, which favours nationalism in Germany, as well as the Rhineland separatism, which could be the first step towards the dismemberment of Europe.
-1923, France: during its second Congress, in Paris, the FIDH erases from the third article of its statutes any direct reference to the French Revolution and the 1789 and 1793 declarations of human rights. Yet the Federation favours the French model and its headquarters are accommodated by the LDH in Paris. Thus the organisation dismisses a motion asking for a reference to the American declaration of human rights in the United States. All the seven congresses organised by the FIDH between 1922 and 1937 are held in a French-speaking area: five in Paris (in 1922, 1923, 1927, 1932 and 1937), one in Brussels (in 1926) and one in Luxembourg (in 1936). Besides, the representation of the member organisations in the Federation’s council, whose administration is funded by the French LDH at least up to 1927, is based on a proportional system. Such a system favours the French LDH, as it has more members, and is criticized by other national leagues. The Federation does not manage to spread in the English-speaking world, in spite of the contacts taken in Great Britain with the National Council for Civil Liberty and with Gilbert Murray, the founder-to-be of Oxfam. In the United States, where the FIDH wants to campaign against the execution of two anarchist militants, Nicolas Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, in 1927, it vainly tries to strengthen its links with the American Union for the defence of civil liberties. Members of the Federation in other parts of the world are not very strong either. Two of the eleven leagues of the FIDH in 1922 are exiled in Paris, the Armenian and the Russian ones. Founded in 1899 and registered in 1901, the Belgian League for Human Rights LBDH (Ligue belge des droits de l’homme) is still weak after the death of its president Georges Lorand and the dispersal of its members during the war. As for the Liga Española de los Derechos del Hombre y del Ciudadano, it fails to reopen offices in Spain in 1922. Launched in Madrid in April 1913 by the leader of the local Freemasonry, Doctor Luis Simarro Lacabra, it has to settle in Paris at the end of 1923, first on a provisional basis, then definitely after trying to operate in its own country during the Republican period and the civil war between 1931 and 1938. Created in 1920, the Portuguese LDH has to stop its activities after the “bloody night” coup on the 19th of October 1921, and it does not manage to give the movement an existence in Latin America, where a short-lived Brazilian league will be dissolved in 1937. In Eastern Europe, many LDHs are maintained by members of parliament, with a short existence while the parliamentary regimes of the post war period end, as in Albania or in Hungary, where a former leader from the local human rights league, Mihály Károly (1875-1955) was, for a short time, the president of the Republic in Budapest from the 11th of February to the 21st of March 1919, before he had to go in exile, his possessions being confiscated in 1927. In Czechoslovakia, the LDH, created in 1923, will become inactive in 1929, after its secretary general is the victim of an anti-Semite attack in 1926. Generally speaking, the region is marked by anti Semitism. In Poland for instance, the LDH, to be dissolved in 1937, denounces the hard condition of the proletariat, but it does not do so much about the existence of a numerus clausus limiting the access of the Jews to the university. Such an attitude is rather different from the French LDH’s support for Alfred Dreyfus or the Ashkenazi communities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the same time the FIDH turns down the application of a Palestinian League for not being representative as it is exclusively composed of Zionist Jews in exile in Paris.
-From 1924, France: the LDH vainly tries to remain politically independent by forbidding its members to be ministers in a government. During its congresses at La Rochelle in November 1925 and Paris in July 1927, it introduces new rules that are supposed to prevent conflicts of interests with members. In this perspective, it blames the leader of the Radical Party, Edouard Herriot (senator of the Rhône since 1912, minister of Public Works in 1915 and Education in 1926, chief of the gouvernment briefly in 1924 and 1932), and its central committee expels Paul Painlevé (representative of Paris since 1910, minister of Education 1915 and War in 1917 and 1925-1929, chief of the gouvernment in September-November 1917 and April-November 1925). But it remains dominated by Radicals until 1924, and then by Socialists, especially with Victor Basch, who is elected to chair the organisation in 1926, and Emile Kahn, who controls the general secretariat from 1932 onwards. As soon as 1918, the League launched an inter-group committee to bring together its elected members in the Parliament. Definitely established in 1922, this lobby was to count 240 representatives and senators in 1933. So the association is not free from parliamentary politics, even if some of his positions circumvent the party system, such as the denunciation of the trials of intellectuals in Moscow and the military annexation of Armenia and Georgia by the USSR. Hence during the fourth congress of the Third International Organisation in 1922, Leon Trotsky asked the members of communist parties to leave human rights leagues. Marcel Cachin, for instance, was to resign from the LDH, where he was the only communist in the central committee (from 1918 until 1921). Soon both the communists and the socialists have their own representative structures to defend not individual liberties but their own members, to whom they provide legal counselling during political trials. The International Union of Socialist Jurists is created in Berlin by the International in August 1928; from 1929 to 1940, the International Legal Association is born out of the communist movement and the Red Relief.
-From May 1925, Algeria: a socialist and a member of the central committee of the French LDH until 1935, Maurice Violette (1870-1960) becomes the general governor of Algeria in 1925. A minister in Léon Blum’s government in 1936, he will try in vain to pass a bill to give civic and political rights to a minority of Arabs in the colony. Generally speaking, the FIDH advocates for an assimilation policy. Through the French LDH, it supports colonisation in what it “best” offers. But it also asks for the cancellation of the indigene code and fights against abuses of power, i.e. expropriations in Madagascar, extortions in Congo or monopoles in Indochina (the French LDH had already protested against the repression of the Boxer rebellion in China in 1900, the killings of the Boers in South Africa in 1901 and a French military expedition in Morocco in 1912). In territories under a mandate from the League of Nations, the Federation favours the emancipation of native people, for instance in French Syria. On the British side, the FIDH supports the creation of a temporary Egyptian LDH in exile in Paris after the 1923 constitution was abrogated in 1930 in Cairo. On the American side, the Federation protests against the military occupation of Haiti, where the constitution was abrogated in 1918 and where a LDH pretends to still exist.
-26th 27th of June 1926, Belgium: the third congress of the FIDH, in Brussels, marks the rebirth of the LBDH (Belgian Human Rights League), which was rebuilt in October 1923. As it is mobilized for the protection of political exiles, the Federation demands the creation of a special body under the League of Nations, the UNHCR’s ancestor (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). In fact many LDHs worry about the people displaced during the First World War or deprived of their citizenship after the geopolitical upheaval of Europe after 1918. Before it disappears in 1937, the Greek League, for instance, protests against the occupation of the Dodecanese Islands by Italy after the 1923 Lausanne treaty. Launched in May 1926 by antifascists who paradoxically favour the Anschluss of their country with Germany, the Austrian LDH fights for the heimatlosen stateless who lost their citizenship after the dismantling of the Austrian Hungarian Empire, but who could not benefit from the protection of the League of Nations to Russian or Armenian refugees.
-1927, Ukraine: in France, the lawyer Henry Torrès, a member of the central committee of the LDH, defends and gets acquitted an Ukrainian refugee, Samuel Schwartzbard, who, on the 25th of May 1926, had killed Simon Petlioura, the leader of the Cossacks responsible for the massacre of thousands of Jews. Bernard Lecache, a member of the LDH, a journalist for L’Humanité and the founder of the International League Against Anti-semitism, had gone to Ukraine in order to investigate on anti-Jews pogroms and to supply testimonies to the trial of Samuel Schwartzbard.
-1928, France: the FIDH extends its mission from civic to social and economic rights.