lbert Gobat, the first Secretary General of the Union, was also one of the eight leading figures in early IPU history who were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He won this award, which he shared, in 1902, with his friend and compatriot, Elie Ducommun, in recognition of their dedication to the cause of peace.
Gobat held the following offices: State Councillor for the Canton of Berne from 1884 to 1912; National Councillor from 1890 to 1914; Secretary General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union from 1892-1909; and Director of the International Peace Bureau from 1911 to 1914. In 1882, he was appointed by two electoral communities to the Grand Council and was nominated State Councillor. He further served as Head of the Department of Public Education of the Canton of Berne (1884-1906) and of the Department of Domestic Affairs (1906-1912).
Gobat staunchly supported the principle of equal pay for men and women, especially in the case of telegraphers. In 1902, he prompted the adoption of a resolution whereby the Confederation would always resort to arbitration to resolve disputes concerning the interpretation of trade agreements. The pursuit of such objectives was to characterize Gobat's political activities throughout his mandate as Secretary General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
The origins of the Inter-Parliamentary Union go back to 1889, when parliamentarians representing nine countries met in Paris on the initiative of two parliamentarians: Frédéric Passy from France and William Randal Cremer from the United Kingdom. Albert Gobat did not attend that meeting but took part in the IIIrd Inter-Parliamentary Conference in Rome in 1891. As soon as he got back, he set up (and headed) a Swiss parliamentary Group. The following year, the Union met in Berne and Gobat was asked to serve as Secretary General in spite of opposition from the British, who preferred one of their own men, Randal Cremer, and hoped that the headquarters might be closer to England. Finally the Swiss won, as the French preferred the Union to be based in a neutral, republican country rather than in a conservative monarchy.
The IVth Inter-Parliamentary Conference was held in Berne in 1892. The presidency and organization of the Conference was entrusted to Gobat, who master-minded a project to establish a "Permanent Central Bureau" under the official title "Inter-Parliamentary Bureau for Permanent Arbitration". Most of what the project proposed was accepted by delegates. The Bureau's Headquarters were to be in Berne and its director was to be appointed by the National Groups.
The Bureau's running costs were shared out among the National Groups proportionately, according to total population. Gobat got down to work as soon as he was appointed Secretary General of the IPU. One of his tasks was to draft the Parliamentary Correspondence which informed MPs of the latest news of the National Groups. Gobat wrote this journal between 1892 and 1897 during his spare time. He was also in charge of writing up yearly reports on the IPU's activities.
His experience as a politician led him to open up membership to countries where parliamentary government was still a new concept. Accordingly, he did his utmost to further the cause of parliamentarianism in Russia. To speed up membership, he even introduced a special clause stipulating that the admission of non-constitutional countries would be possible upon government authorization. Gobat visited the Russian Ambassador in Berne to inform him in person of the decision of the VIIth Inter-Parliamentary Conference allowing membership of non-constitutional States.
In 1899, Count Mouraiev invited States to attend a peace conference in The Hague. Parliamentarians, especially Gobat, welcomed the initiative. At last governments were showing an interest in what they had been working on for several years! Their work had not been in vain. Gobat addressed the legal aspects of international arbitration and the need for regular peace conferences in the speech he gave at the Kristiania Nobel Institute in 1899.
Excerpts from an article by Verdiana Grossi
Doctor of History at the University of Geneva