HC Deb 29 March 1878 vol 239 cc220-4

, in rising to call attention to the Treaty of Paris of 1856 and the Protocol of the Treaty of London of 1871, said, the Motion of which he had given Notice was to this effect— That while, according to the Law of Nations and the right interpretation of the said Protocol, no Power can arbitrarily renounce obligations once accepted by Treaty, it is equally true, according to the Law of Nations and the said Protocol, that no Power can arbitrarily insist upon maintaining obligations once created by Treaty. He was fully aware of the inconvenience of discussing special matters relating to the present crisis; but he thought advantage might arise from an explanation given by the Government in answer to his Motion, which was of a general application. Now, his contention was that, while no Power could arbitrarily renounce obligations contracted under Treaty, it was equally true that no Power could arbitrarily insist upon keeping up obligations once made. The word "arbitrarily" was the key-word of his proposition. If half-a-dozen Powers assented together to a Treaty, that Treaty was liable to be affected by circumstances which might exist from time to time. If no change whatever had happened in the circumstances in reference to which the Treaty was contracted, it would be a purely arbitrary act on the part of any Power to declare that its obligations should cease because it wished its position under the Treaty to be altered. Again, circumstances might have altogether changed, so that the Treaty would be dissolved as a matter of fact, and five out of the six Powers might agree that the circumstances had changed so that their obligations were dissolved. It, then, would not be proper for the sixth Power to say—"Your obligations are not dissolved because I refuse my assent to a declaration that they are dissolved." That would be as arbitrary as the conduct of the former Power in declaring its obligations had ceased though the circumstances had not altered. Take the example of the Treaty of Vienna, which assigned the Belgian Provinces to the King of Holland. Those Provinces—the scene of the great campaigns of the last century and of the earlier years of this century, the "cockpit of Europe"—were annexed to Holland as the best safeguard of Germany against the restless ambition of France. Within 16 years, however, the Belgians renounced the authority of the King of Holland, and it became necessary for the signatory Powers of the Treaty of Vienna to re-consider the position of Belgium. If Prussia had refused to recognize the King of the Belgians, that conduct on the part of Prussia would have been an arbitrary and indefensible act according to the Law of Nations. It was quite plain what was the application of all this. They had heard of a Treaty agreed upon by two Powers—a Treaty which altered, to a considerable degree, the Treaty of Paris. Just as it was true that no party to that Treaty could arbitrarily set it aside, the circumstances not having altered, so now, those circumstances having completely changed, its obligations were to a great extent, if not altogether, dissolved, and no Power could arbitrarily insist upon setting up that Treaty as an invincible obstacle against the recognition of the new change. It could not be said the Treaty of Paris could not be altered without the concurrence of all the Powers concerned in making it. Without the concurrence of "all" meant without the concurrence of "each," though the language might be put in such a way as, apparently, to shelter those making it behind the consensus of nations. He was quite sure the Government would not take up this arbitrary course. They would probably say, that if they went to the Conference, they would not attempt to set up any clause of the Treaty of Paris simply because they thought it should be set up. They would set up what reason and right required, and their action would be directed towards the settlement of the peace of Europe. But he would point out to the Government that if they insisted that it should be a condition of entering into Conference that any Power should be obliged to submit all the regulations of the Treaty of San Stefano to the consideration and sanction of the Conference, it would then be in the power of any Government to assume a position of arbitrary self-will. If every new Article required the sanction of every Power, it would be competent for any such Power to refuse its sanction at its pleasure, and no one could reasonably ask Russia to subject itself beforehand to such a contingency. The reason why he had brought this before the House at this crisis was that it had been a remarkable, and to his mind a very painful, fact that during the last two or three weeks this critical question had been discussed with the utmost freedom upon knowledge often defective—very often erroneous—in the public Press in a way to inflame the public mind in England. A few words, simply illustrative of the conditions which were legitimate and which were illegitimate, might at all events be of some public use, without embarrassing Her Majesty's Government. In the Correspondence just published, Lord Derby had stipulated that every Article of the Treaty should be placed before the Congress, not necessarily for acceptance, but that it might be considered what Article required acceptance. But they all knew well enough that a majority of voices would not rule, and if each Member of the Congress were to say that such and such an Article required acceptance, it would simply put Russia at the feet of every other Power. In her reply, Russia claimed the same liberty for herself that was acceded to the other Powers; so that, on the part of Russia, there was an apprehension that by complying with Lord Derby's condition, she would be committing herself to a tribunal instead of a consultative body. And that appeared to be quite plain from the last sentence of Count Schouvaloff's despatch, which left to the other Powers the liberty of raising such questions in the Conference as they thought fit to discuss, but reserved for Russia the liberty of accepting or not accepting the discussion. Now, he submitted the language of Count Schouvaloff's despatch was perfectly justifiable in International Law; but it had been misinterpreted in some public prints. One, for example, said—"Russia puts a veto on the Conference;" another, that Russia denied to the Powers assembled at the Conference cognizance of the Treaty of San Stefano. She did not do so. What she did say was, in effect, that she was not bound to submit the Treaty to the concurrence of all the Powers; but was ready to consider the Congress as a consultative body, and not a tribunal. This subject had been so freely discussed in the Press, that what he had submitted to the House could not be productive of mischief to Her Majesty's Government or to the interests of the country.


I do not complain for a moment of the tone or general tenour of the remarks of the hon. Gentleman. There is much in what he has said with which I should be quite prepared to agree. Upon some points, I think, when the hon. Gentleman has time to consider the Correspondence which will be laid before the House, he will see that he has not entirely appreciated the position and views of Her Majesty's Government. But I rise at this moment, not for the purpose of going into the question, but to express my earnest hope, if I may do so, that we may be allowed not to pursue this discussion at the present moment, but to go into Committee of Supply, for the purpose of taking a Vote which is essential. I take this course upon several grounds. With respect to the particular question now raised, it would be more convenient to discuss it, as the hon. Gentleman himself would admit, when we have before us the Papers which we must have in a very short time. With respect to the general position of our Business, I must remind the House that this is the second Morning Sitting arranged this week at great inconvenience to many hon. Members, and it has been specially arranged for to-day in order to discuss an important question arising upon a Vote in Supply which, it was hoped, we might get through to-day. This would enable us to redeem the engagements for Monday next, which it would be most convenient we should then be able to redeem. I do not wish to interfere with the course of discussion, but I do trust the hon. Gentleman will now allow us to go into Supply.