China’s New Vassal
How the War in Ukraine Turned Moscow Into Beijing’s Junior Partner
THE World War brought back to governmental and public attention a problem which at the beginning of the century appeared to have been entirely settled -- the problem of the passport. The passport does not date back further than the sixteenth century. After a short period of suppression during the French Revolution, it was very generally applied during the first half of the nineteenth century, but in the years immediately preceding the World War it remained in force chiefly as a police measure and as a means of defense used by autocratic governments. Condemned as despotic and as an unnecessary barrier to the freedom of communications, it survived in only a few countries of Europe -- Russia, Turkey, Rumania, Bulgaria and the Austrian provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina; it survived also in Colombia, Guatemala, Uruguay, Haiti and Persia.
In the confusion produced by the war, not only did the passport reappear, but it was used much more generally than ever before. During this time of general suspicion, of constant vigilance against military espionage and of food rationing (which made it necessary for governments to prevent the entry of new consumers) it seemed the only means of controlling aliens and of assuring the protection of the military and economic interests of the state. Reasonable persons hoped that with the return of peace would come a return to the former freedom from travel restrictions. But despite solemn declarations in the peace treaties, requests from international organizations and promises made by several governments, the compulsory passport system was not abolished, or even modified. It was to some extent made even stricter.
The League of Nations took up the problem at an early date. An international conference, held at Paris in October 1920, while recognizing the impossibility of a complete return to pre-war conditions regarding passports, recommended the introduction of a uniform type of passport, the exclusion of any fiscal features, the limitation of certain kinds of visas and the simplification of all formalities. This first attempt was not very successful. The Council's suggestion that the recommendations of the Paris Conference should be adopted was accepted by only a few governments, and subject to many reservations. There was a slight improvement in the system of visas, in accordance with special agreements based on reciprocity. For example, an agreement between the Succession States of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at a Conference which met at Gratz in January 1922 had certain limited results, and an agreement between France, Belgium and Luxemburg provided that official identity cards might take the place of passports. But the results of these efforts were so meagre that many international organizations appealed insistently for a more general solution of the problem. Consequently, a second Conference on Passports was convened at Geneva in 1926. The program was laid down by the Sixth Assembly of the League of Nations in 1925, in a resolution urging the abolition of the passport system to the widest extent possible. But even this new Conference did not achieve appreciable results.
The League was more successful in dealing with one of the particular problems connected with passports -- that relating to special identity cards and traveling permits for Russian and other refugees. The success was due not only to the special conditions of the problem itself, but also to the unfailing zeal of a man to whom science and humanity owe much, the late Dr. Nansen. The problem of the Russian refugees appeared in all its gravity even before the end of the war. The Bolshevik Revolution had put about two million Russians outside the law and deprived them of all civic rights. The majority of them were concentrated in Eastern Europe. They had no means of traveling to countries where living costs were lower and where there were more opportunities to find work. In 1921 Dr. Nansen was appointed High Commissioner to solve this problem. At a conference of delegates from the states chiefly interested, held at Geneva in July 1922, it was decided to introduce a special certificate. On presentation of this "Nansen passport," which did not entitle the holder to return to the country which had issued it, the refugee could be admitted to the state to which he intended to travel, either after a visa had been affixed or after he had received a certificate permitting him to cross the frontier. Fifty-one governments acceded to the agreement relating to this certificate, and accepted the obligation to recognize its validity.
This success induced the Council to extend the system in 1924 to another large group of refugees -- the Armenians. A Convention, drafted by Dr. Nansen and approved by the Council, was acceded to by thirty-eight states. In 1927, the Nansen passport was further extended to Assyrians, Assyro-Chaldeans and Turks who had lost their nationality. Proposals for a still wider and more liberal extension failed owing to the opposition of a few states.
Many problems still remain to be solved. For example, the Nansen passport should be extended to the numerous Russians who, although not affected by the decree of expatriation, are no longer protected by the Soviet Government and therefore cannot obtain or renew a regular passport. There is no reason to refuse to them the document which is issued to other refugees. It is also necessary to facilitate the issue of visas (without which the Nansen passport is often useless) and to provide in certain cases for the possibility of return to the country of departure. Finally, there remains the great problem of extending the issuance of Nansen passports or similar documents to all exiles and refugees. This problem calls for solution not only for reasons of humanity, but also in the interests of public and social order in the countries which have given hospitality to these sometimes very numerous groups of people. Obviously, it is not desirable to increase the number of persons having no nationality and having therefore no country to which they can appeal for protection. But even if the states should agree to naturalize without exception all refugees within their borders, it would not be possible to insist that the refugees must give up their original nationality in order to accept another. Until each government comes to understand that it cannot refuse protection to its citizens abroad, and until the problem of the person without nationality is dealt with from the international standpoint, it is necessary to extend collective protection to all refugees.
The profound changes and bitter political strife of recent years have multiplied the number of political exiles and have given very real importance to their problems. The question was raised in precise and concrete form at the International Conference on Passports held at Geneva in 1926. The German delegation suggested that the Conference should examine the possibility of introducing an identity document that would be uniform for all persons unable to obtain a passport. A special committee of experts, after studying this proposal, decided in favor of the introduction of some such international document, to be issued to all persons (1) deprived of nationality; (2) of uncertain nationality; or (3) who, although having a nationality, were unable to obtain a passport from the authorities of their country of origin. It was suggested that this document be delivered to the persons concerned by the authorities of the countries where they reside, and under their responsibility. But this proposal met with unyielding opposition from the governments of certain countries (and in particular Italy) which maintain an exceptionally restricted policy regarding the issuance of passports. When the draft submitted by the committee of experts was brought before the third General Conference on Communications and Transit, which met at Geneva in August 1927, bitter criticisms were raised. The Italian delegation threatened to withdraw if the Conference insisted on discussing the possibility of extending the special protection provided by the proposed document to political exiles deprived of national protection. Owing to this determined opposition, the Conference closed without approving the draft convention, limiting itself to a mere recommendation of the issue of identity papers and traveling permits only to persons deprived of their nationality, or of uncertain nationality.
The institution of dictatorial governments in some European countries has made the problem more serious. Recent laws in certain states allow administrative and political authorities to deprive of their nationality all persons whose political conduct or opinions are unfavorable to the government of the country. Such persons are placed in a curious position. Driven from their own country, whose nationality they do not wish to renounce, faced with great difficulties in case they decide to try to acquire another nationality, they find themselves deprived of elementary rights. Scattered throughout the world, often persecuted by their own governments, they are forced to earn their living under most unfavorable conditions. If they try to travel to countries where they think they might find work, they are prevented from doing so because they lack the necessary papers. There are others, too, who though they have not lost their nationality nevertheless are unable to obtain a passport or equivalent document. These can neither remain in the countries in which they are living nor travel to another. They are therefore obliged to provide themselves with false documents or else to make a secret entry into the countries which they wish to visit. Expulsions, law suits, difficulties of every kind follow. These difficulties can be removed only by international agreement.
Beyond this particular problem is the general problem of the compulsory passport system. The Geneva Conference in 1926 expressed the hope that special agreements between various states might bring about a gradual return to pre-war conditions. Special agreements have been numerous recently, and have resulted in appreciable progress with regard to the abolition of visas and the facilitating of control formalities. Certain European countries no longer insist on the necessity of a visa, which has caused so much trouble and expense for those who are obliged to travel in several countries. Thus, United States citizens no longer need visas in order to visit Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Lichtenstein, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Outside Europe, they do not need passports in Liberia, Nicaragua or Siam.
But no progress has been made in the last few years in the task of abolishing the passport altogether. In certain respects the position has become even worse. In some countries it is now customary to withhold passports from opponents of the régime in power, thus inflicting punishment on them for their political views. Apart from this use of it as a political weapon, the passport serves no real purpose except to raise money through the fees collected. But the reduction of the fees for the issuance of passports and the gradual abolition of the visa have cut heavily into profits. In most countries the expenses of running the passport organization are higher than the income which it produces.
The passport no longer affords a means of controlling the movements of foreigners and facilitating the action of the police and law courts. As long as the system of visas was applied generally, some control was still possible. The authorities of the state could refuse to give a visa without a rigorous inquiry (though this proved very difficult). But with the gradual abolition of the visa, this control is no longer effective. Without the necessity of a visa, the passport no longer affords any guarantee regarding the person in whose name it is issued, for in most countries a passport is issued to anyone who asks for it and pays the fee. Even in countries where greater precautions are taken at the time of issuance, the passport is refused only for political reasons having no connection with the moral standing or social position of the applicant or with the object of his or her journey.
On the other hand, those who wish to evade the passport control at frontiers can do so very easily, nor is it difficult to obtain a false passport when necessary, for expert workshops turn out false documents that defy detection. Some countries, realizing that the passport is an inefficient method of control, have substituted other more efficient means. Many now lay down the obligation for foreigners and for those who give foreigners lodging to inform the police, and many now also issue permits for residence in the country and identity cards. Simultaneously there has been a steady improvement in international police organization. These new methods, indeed, afford a much more effective control than is offered by passports.
It is a fallacy, too, to suppose that the compulsory passport system is a satisfactory means of preserving public and social order. As a method of isolating revolutionary doctrines or ideas which are considered dangerous it is a rank failure. No passport systems were better organized or more strictly enforced than those of Italy before 1870, of the Turkish Empire or of Tsarist Russia; but the new currents of thought which were sweeping the world paid no attention to the passport barriers erected about those countries with such trouble and foresight.
All in all, the passport seems an anachronism in the modern world. It serves no real purpose, and it puts in the hands of unscrupulous régimes a fine weapon for the abuse of power.