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        Health and Social Questions Section: administrative history

        The Health and Social Questions Section constituted the secretariat of the permanent Health Organisation of the League of Nations, established in 1923, and of the Advisory Committee on Social Questions.

        The Health and Social Questions Section also acted as an information service and a link between national health administrations. It supported governments through the promotion of technical assistance.

        In 1922, it was decided to set up two sections: the Health Section corresponding to the Health Organisation, and the Social Section in charge of traffic in women and children as well as narcotics.

        1) Health:

        The creation of the League of Nations was bound to promote closer international cooperation in the field of public health, because disease respects no borders, and epidemics spread from country to country with disconcerting speed.

        The League of Nations could not carry out the task of combating disease entrusted to it by the Covenant without a proper technical organization. Although this took some years to build up, the League of Nations Health Organisation was in working order by 1923.

        The League of Nations Health Organisation was comprised of the following bodies:

        • a Health Committee, composed of specialists in medicine or health questions, set up in 1923. It acted as the advisory and technical organ of the Council and Assembly on all international public health questions. The Health Committee at once established close cooperation both with the International Labour Organisation, in areas of common ground, and with the Opium Advisory Committee in connection with the treatment of addicts and the determination of other deadly habit-forming drugs (such as morphine, heroin and cocaine).

        • a General Advisory Health Council, set up by the Permanent Committee of the "Office international d'hygiène publique", which was an autonomous organ established in Paris in 1909. The General Advisory Health Council was composed of Government representatives and worked under the supervision of the Permanent Committee of the "Office international d'hygiène publique".

        • the Advisory Committee of the Eastern Bureau of Epidemiological Information established in Singapore, in 1924, whose purpose was to develop the work of the Health Organisation, particularly in the field of epidemiological intelligence, in the Far East, and

        • the Health Section of the Secretariat of the League of Nations, that constituted the secretariat of the Health Organisation.

        Some of the most characteristic activities of the Health Organisation and its bodies were: prevention and control of diseases, surveillance of epidemics, standardization of sera, vaccines and biological products, exchange of health personnel, organization of sanitary conferences and courses, rural hygiene, nutrition, urban and rural housing, etc.

        Public health is one of the fields in which States have been most willing to cooperate with the League of Nations.

        2) Social Questions:

        The Social Questions Section prepared the work and documents for the opium traffic commissions and the Advisory Committee on Social Questions, dealing not only with traffic in opium and other dangerous drugs, but also traffic in women and children, as well as the spread of these illicit activities.

        a) Opium:

        • The opium traffic commissions were:

        • The Advisory Committee on Traffic in Opium and other Dangerous Drugs, that was set up in 1920, to advise the Council on all questions concerning the traffic in narcotic drugs, to supervise the application of the relevant conventions and agreements and the execution of international obligations, and to coordinate efforts of Governments.
          After the First World War, the League of Nations was entrusted with reactivating the Hague Convention of 1912. The Opium Advisory Committee was, thus, appointed by the Council with the task of convincing States to re-adhere to the Hague Convention. The 42 signatory States of the 1912 Hague Convention, whose objective was to control the traffic in opium and other deadly habit-forming drugs (such as morphine, heroin and cocaine), agreed to allow only such drugs to come into their countries, which were considered necessary for medicinal and scientific purposes. However, before this Convention could be implemented, the First World War broke out.

        • The Permanent Central Opium Board established in 1928 to collect statistical information about the trade, production and consumption of drugs.
          After the First World War, it became apparent that in order to prevent the illicit smuggling of drugs, drug manufacture and production had to be controlled at the source. Thus, in 1924 and 1925, the League of Nations organized two Opium Conferences to implement practical control measures regarding the production and manufacture of narcotic substances. The 1931 Convention proposed a strict regulation of narcotic drugs to be used by the world's medical and scientific communities, though it did not indicate the need to limit and control the cultivation of the opium-producing poppy flower. This was still under discussion when the Second World War broke out in 1939.

        • The Opium Supervisory Body created in 1933 to study, in each country, the opium needs for medical or scientific reasons. It was entrusted with collecting information as to the arrangements made in the various countries for carrying out the Opium Convention, the production, distribution and consumption of the drugs, and other necessary data.

        b) Traffic in women and children:

        In 1904 and 1910, several agreements intended to protect the rights of women and children were put in place by a number of States. As a result, Article 23 of the Covenant of the League of Nations entrusted it with supervising the execution of these agreements. In 1921, an International Conference held in Geneva drew up a Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children that was ratified by 48 States, and recommended setting up an Advisory Committee on Social Questions. In pursuance of this recommendation, the Council set up, on 14th January 1922, the "Advisory Committee on the Traffic in Women and Children".

        The Committee was subsequently reconstituted under the name of "Advisory Committee on Traffic in Women and Protection of Children", after the transfer to the League of Nations of the work of the International Association for the Promotion of Child Welfare.
        Its objectives were to legally raise the age of marriage in many countries, to abolish licensed brothels, to help children to find placement in families, to support disabled or blind children, etc.

        Fifty countries accepted the 1924 Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child.

        Later, the Advisory Committee on Social Questions did away with the subdivision into two Committees (Traffic in Women Committee and Child Welfare Committee set up in 1924) which existed formerly, and was given the title, Advisory Committee on Social Questions, through the 1936 resolution of the League of Nations.

        The powers and duties of the Committee were not in any way affected by this change.

        The Health and Social Questions Section also prepared the work for the Fifth Commission of the Assembly, which dealt with all these questions.

        In 1939, the division between the Health Section and the Social Section disappeared, both sections being merged into Department III of the League of Nations for health, social questions and the repression of opium traffic.

        Despite setbacks, the League of Nations "war against drugs" did not fail. Responsibility was transferred to the United Nations, whose Advisory Committee continues to deal with this issue through its Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

        After the League of Nations folded, the Health Organisation became the World Health Organization (WHO), based in Geneva.


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