Bombings in Spain. Draft Reply of the League of Nations


On March 31, 1938, Miguel Santalo, president of the Labour Council of the Spanish Republic, sent a petition to the director of the International Labour Organisation requesting that the League of Nations condemn Italy for its bombardment, on March 16–18, 1938, of the city of Barcelona, which resulted in the death of more than 1,000 civilians. The Italian action was undertaken in support of the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco, who were fighting to overthrow the government of the Spanish Republic. Santalo argued that the bombardment contravened a League resolution of July 25, 1932, prohibiting the aerial bombing of civilian targets. This draft reply was written by the Political Section of the League of Nations Permanent Secretariat. It argued that the resolution in question had been “watered down” during subsequent negotiations and thus had not become a part of “modern international law.” It therefore could not be invoked. The draft reply noted that the 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare had created valid principles of international law. But it held that this protocol did not apply to aerial bombardment and thus was not relevant. Santalo’s petition was therefore rejected. The draft document offers a good example of the narrow, legalistic approach taken by the League of Nations to the increasingly violent actions of the dictatorial powers in the 1930s—an approach that helped to doom the League and in the view of many historians contributed to the outbreak of World War II in 1939. The document is held in the archives of the League, which were transferred to the United Nations in 1946 and are housed at the UN office in Geneva. They were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World register in 2010.

Last updated: August 5, 2016