890D.05/5–2946: Telegram

The Minister to Syria and Lebanon (Wadsworth) to the Secretary of State


253. ReDeptel 185, May 14. 1. New Lebanese Prime Minister Munla, who was Minister of Justice in preceding Cabinet, told me informally May 24 that in his personal view, while Lebanese Government would wish at some later time to consider proposing to Parliament legislation designed to remodel Lebanon’s judicial system in keeping with regime of full independence, he perceived no immediate need, as in the case of Syria, for action designed to dispense with Mixed Courts jurisdiction, anomalous though that jurisdiction might be in light of Lebanon’s present political relationships and high calibre of Lebanese judges.

2. Some 10 days earlier, Legal Counselor Besley of British Embassy, Cairo, had discussed with me, before proceeding to Damascus for informal conversations with Syrian authorities, the continuing awkward situation in Syria where cases pending before Syrian Mixed Courts at time of French bombardment of Damascus a year ago could not, in absence of any functioning competent jurisdiction, receive any hearing whatsoever.

Besley said that, should he find Syrian authorities unwilling to proceed along lines of earlier British suggestion, now concurred in [Page 788] by French, that Mixed Courts be reestablished with neutral judges replacing former French judges, he was disposed to suggest that Syrian Government consider setting up special ad hoc jurisdiction to try all pending mixed cases, its bench to be composed of Syrian judges who had formerly sat on Mixed Courts bench assisted by foreign judges to be appointed by Syrian Government from among candidates suggested at that Government’s request by International Court of Justice; such special court to continue use of French language.

If Syrian authorities were found to be disposed to proceed along lines of this suggestion for settlement of pending cases, and if appropriate assurances (along lines similar to those suggested in Deptel 88, March 868) regarding hearing of personal status cases of non-Moslem British subjects could be obtained, Besley seemed to believe that British Government might properly agree that all new cases be brought before ordinary Syrian courts, appropriate legislation to be voted by Syrian Parliament. I commented that I believed Department would not be unfavorably disposed towards arrangements along such lines.

I was later informed by officer of British Legation that Besley had had friendly but inconclusive meeting with Syrian Prime Minister and had recommended that, in view of expressed American and French interest, British Foreign Office consider further consultation with Washington and Paris.

3. On May 27, I had occasion to enquire informally of Syrian Prime Minister Jabri whether he had found Besley’s approach helpful. His reply was a much conditioned affirmative. He was willing that a special bench be administratively constituted to try pending mixed cases. His Minister of Justice might well arrange that Syrian judges who served on former Mixed Courts constitute such bench; many of them had studied in European law schools; all knew French. But he could not consider appointing foreign judges to sit with them. Nor could he include any provision, indicative of such administrative intention, in the bill which his Minister of Justice had prepared and which if approved by Parliament, as he had no reason to doubt, would provide that jurisdiction in all pending mixed cases should lie henceforth solely with the regular Syrian courts.

This was first indication I or British here had had that such a bill had actually been drafted. Yesterday morning Damascus newspapers carried what purported to be its text.

Although I have since learned from Prime Minister that this text was copy of earlier draft and is not to be introduced without considerable [Page 789] modification and addition (notably to provide for jurisdiction in new cases) following summary is of interest as indicating trend of official thinking on subject:

Preamble, after referring to great power recognition of independence of Syria “member of UNO founded on principle of equality of sovereignty” and to fact that “question of Mixed Courts has not yet been settled”, states that it is not proper that pending cases therein “should remain suspended”. Operative clauses provide that all such cases shall be referred to equivalent Syrian courts and that cases not so referred within 3 months shall be dropped.

4. I mentioned in same conversation with Jabri our 1928 exchange of notes with Persia providing that in matters of personal status non-Moslem American citizens in Persia would be governed by their own national law which would be applied by Persian civil courts.69 Jabri saw no objection to giving similar assurance and said matter would be studied if I would supply him with copy of American-Persian exchange of notes.

5. In conversation yesterday with President Faris [el-] Khoury of Syrian Parliament, he queried informally necessity in latter connection of making exception in Syria for non-Moslem Americans. British Consul, Damascus, however, expressed personal view that his Government would prefer to maintain such exception on ground that British Moslems would prefer in any Moslem country to have personal status cases adjudged by Sharia rather than civil courts.

[Here follows paragraph numbered 6 giving summary of three cases pending before the Syrian Mixed Courts known to involve American interests.]

  1. Not printed.
  2. For documentation on this subject, see Foreign Relations, 1928, vol. iii, pp. 734 ff.