In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mandates in International Law

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • General Overviews of the Mandate System
  • Proposals for Internationalization of the Occupied German and Ottoman Territories
  • Peace Conference Negotiations on the Future of Occupied Territories
  • The B Mandates
  • Transition from the League of Nations Mandate System to the UN Trust Territory System
  • Theoretical Assessments of the Significance of Mandates in International Law

International Law Mandates in International Law
Cait Storr
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0203


The term “mandate” has no fixed legal definition in international law. In general, it refers to a mode of external territorial administration, in which some or all administrative authority over a designated territory is delegated to a given party, usually a sovereign state, to be exercised on behalf of an international alliance or institution. The term is commonly associated with the formalization of a mandate system for the postwar administration of the German and Ottoman imperial territories occupied by the Allied Powers during World War I. Pursuant to Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, Mandates for Palestine, the British Cameroons, British Togoland, Tanganyika, South West Africa, New Guinea, Nauru, Western Samoa, and later Iraq were conferred on Britain (South West Africa to be exercised by South Africa, New Guinea and Nauru by Australia, and Western Samoa by New Zealand); Mandates for Syria and Lebanon, French Cameroun, and French Togoland on France; a Mandate for Ruanda-Urundi on Belgium; and a Pacific Islands Mandate on Japan. Although the concept of mandatory administration had significant pre–World War I precedents, it is generally agreed that the League mandate system was a sui generis arrangement, instituted as a pragmatic compromise between advocates of internationalization and advocates of annexation of the occupied territories. In administrative terms, the mandate system was unprecedented due to the existence of the League itself, which exercised some powers of oversight through the Permanent Mandates Commission (PMC). This entry provides a selective introduction to the mandate system. The focus is predominantly on contemporaneous sources from the period, supplemented with more recent secondary analyses reflective of the current resurgence of interest in the mandate system within the discipline, which has focused in particular on the legal and political histories of the Palestine and South West Africa mandates. Many contemporaneous texts deploy the explicitly racialized and paternalistic idioms of the period; the language used in citations reflects the language used in the relevant text. Certain mandated territories—namely Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, Iraq, South West Africa, Nauru, and the Japanese Pacific Islands Mandate—are given specific treatment. This is not to minimize the significance or consequences of mandatory administration in any other case, but rather to reflect the comparative coverage in the extant literature. As the mandate system is generally understood as a precursor to subsequent forms of international territorial administration, the entry concludes with sections on the transition from the mandate system to the UN trust territory system, and on theoretical assessments of the significance of mandates in international law.

Reference Works

Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been a wave of primary research in international law revisiting the significance of the mandate system, and the League of Nations more generally, in the formation of the contemporary international order. There is a wealth of archival material still to be drawn upon in researching the mandate system in practice, including not only the League of Nations Archives in Geneva, but also the national archives of the former Mandatory Powers of Great Britain, France, Japan, Australia, South Africa, and Belgium, and the national archives of the former mandated territories themselves. The League of Nations Official Journal and Special Supplement, published monthly, covered many of the negotiations and decisions of the Council of the League and the Permanent Mandates Commission on the conferral and oversight of the mandates. Scholarly journals that published contemporaneous analysis of the establishment of the mandate system, the elaboration of mandatory principles and the development of relevant law, and the many international legal and geopolitical issues that arose during the period include Foreign Affairs, the American Journal of International Law, the Round Table and International Affairs. Pedersen 2015 provides an unparalleled list of primary and secondary resources, collated during extensive research on the Permanent Mandates Commission. For further reference works, see also the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “The League of Nations” by Rose Sydney Parfitt.

  • American Journal of International Law.

    Published quarterly by the American Society of International Law since 1907, the American Journal of International Law published analysis from prominent law and international relations scholars on the law and politics of the mandate system. Available online by subscription.

  • Foreign Affairs.

    Published by the US think tank the Council on Foreign Relations since 1922, Foreign Affairs was the successor publication to both the Journal of International Relations and the Journal of Race Development, and provided a prominent US international relations and foreign policy perspective on controversial international affairs during the mandate period.

  • International Affairs.

    Also founded in 1922, International Affairs, the official journal of Chatham House, was founded to give a British perspective on contemporaneous issues of international law and policy, including mandatory administration. Contributors during the mandate period included Mahatma Gandhi and Arnold J. Toynbee. Available online by subscription.

  • League of Nations Archives.

    The League of Nations Archives are maintained by the United Nations Archives in Geneva. Much archival material remains to be digitized. The Mandates Section chapter of the Répertoire Général prepared in 1969 gives an indication of content.

  • League of Nations Official Journal and Special Supplement. London: Harrison, 1920–1940.

    The League published a monthly journal documenting its activity, including the procès-verbal of the Council of the League, summaries of treaty activity, special reports, communications with the Secretary-General, and formal status notes on the League’s administrative sections, including mandates. Available online.

  • Pedersen, Susan. The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199570485.001.0001

    Pedersen’s groundbreaking history of the mandate system of the League of Nations is constructed from painstaking primary research, and provides an immensely helpful list of archives, including government archives, League of Nations records, and archives of individuals and organizations. See pp. 418–421.

  • The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.

    Published from 1910, the Round Table was spearheaded by Lord Alfred Milner, a member of Lloyd George’s Cabinet, as a means of maintaining ideological unity on matters of foreign policy between the Imperial government and the increasingly independent self-governing British Dominions. Available online by subscription.

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