The United Nations Charter: 75 Years On

The UN Charter is no run-of-the-mill affair. It is a universal covenant, born of untold suffering and sorrow. As the only veteran of the Second World War still in active diplomatic circulation, Sir Peter Marshall reflects on the UN’s founding document, and its enduring relevance.

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco and look back across the coronavirus chasm which separates us from even our very recent past, it is clearer than ever that the UN Charter is no run-of-the-mill affair.

It is an irreplaceable, universal, timeless covenant, by which the states of the earth pledge themselves without reservation to responsible international behaviour in pursuit of the common good, and which itself sets out a procedural, legal and ethical framework within which the states can effectively fulfil their undertakings.

One of the most encouraging features of this unprecedented crusade for international cooperation is the way in which it has served in the reconciliation of former enemies and enmities

For the very first time the members of a universal organisation agreed to replace their previous traditional policies of pursuing their supposed individual national interests at the incidental expense of anyone else, with the collective sustained pursuit of the common good: ‘to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small’, as the Charter put it.

Even more remarkable than the launch of the experiment itself, it would seem on reflection, were the Herculean feats of diplomacy at the highest level, of negotiating and drafting, and of hard, expert graft at every other level, over a period of two months which made it possible.

Generating the necessary momentum in the US, the Commonwealth, the Americas and with the governments-in-exile of the occupied countries presented relatively few problems. Getting the Soviet Union on board, and keeping it there, was something else. It required, among others, the Moscow Declaration of 1943, a meeting of ‘the Great Powers’ to prepare a draft Charter at Dumbarton Oaks in 1944, and discussion among the ‘Big Three’ at Yalta in 1945.

The San Francisco piece de resistance

Meeting in London on the eve of the San Francisco conference, the Commonwealth delegations (from Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK), all members of the League of Nations, backed an inspirational proposal from South African Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts who was also a veteran champion of the League. He argued that the draft Charter, which had been prepared at Dumbarton Oaks, needed a preamble, to make its noble provisions more readily understandable and meaningful for the millions of ordinary people who had known ‘the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind’.

With strong support from the Commonwealth, Smuts achieved his objective. As adopted, the Preamble, a mere 200 words in length, is perhaps the greatest text in modern diplomacy. It has of course, been the Pole Star of the UN and of international life ever since.

They Realised Full Well What They Were Voting For

On 25 June 1945, the vast number of delegates to the UN Conference on International Organisation (UNCIO) to use its formal title, met for the last time, to vote on the text they had so arduously negotiated. Lord Halifax, the British ambassador to the US, presided. ‘The question we are about to solve with our vote’, he said, ‘is the most important thing that can happen in our lives’. Therefore, he proposed to conduct the vote not by show of hands, but rather by having those delegates in favour stand. Each of the delegates then stood, and remained standing. There was a standing ovation when Lord Halifax announced that the Charter had been adopted unanimously.

A Signing Ceremony to Remember

The next day, 26 June, the delegates signed the Charter. China signed first, as the first victim of Axis aggression. In his closing speech, President Harry Truman said: ‘the Charter which you have just signed is a solid structure on which we can build a better world. History will honour you for it. Between the victory in Europe and the final victory in this most destructive of all wars, you have won a victory against war itself’

The Buck Stops Here

President Truman was a veteran of the First World War. He knew the score, and was not afraid to make big decisions. Five weeks later, he decided to use the atomic bomb. When the Soviet Union started the Cold War in Europe almost on the morrow of the end of the Second World War, the US led and funded a vital collective Western response. The country also led an immediate response to the outbreak of the Korean War on 25 June 1950. This was even more striking.

The fledgling UN organisation had decisively passed its first test. It was not utopian; as UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold used to say: ‘we are not leading people to heaven: we are saving them from hell’.

What It Meant in the UK

What it meant for war-emaciated, bomb-scarred Britain can be gathered in its full poignancy from the pre-San Francisco debate in the House of Commons on 17 April 1945, initiated by Clement Attlee who, as Lord Privy Seal, was co-leader, with Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, of the UK delegation; and from the debate to ratify the Charter on 22 August 22 1945, in the House of Commons, again initiated by Attlee, by now prime minister.

Attlee noted that ‘this declaration does not start by saying “We, the Governments.” It starts by saying “We, the peoples.” This, I think, is right, because it expresses the fact that this Charter is an endeavour to put into practical form the deep feelings of all the peoples, including the fighting men who have made it possible to have a Charter at all’.

Verdict on 1945, and the Way Forward in 2020

Seventy-five years on, and beset as we all are by a world-wide pandemic, what are we to make of this saga? And what does it tell us about the way forward now?

The magisterial opening sentence of the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950, the origin of the European Project, provides us with the outline of an answer: ‘world peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it’.

By any standards, securing universal commitment at San Francisco to such a fundamental improvement in international behaviour constituted a creative effort proportionate to the threat to future world peace. What is demanded of us – of all of us – now is the making of creative efforts which match up to our unprecedented situation.

A very good start is provided by the wording of an excellent Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 2 April 2020 entitled ‘Global Solidarity to Fight the Coronavirus’. While recognising the central role of the UN system, it calls on everyone else to get involved.

These are not just words. The UN is reaching out to engage in dialogue with people the world over – the ‘we the people of the Preamble to the UN Charter’. The theme is ‘The future we want: the UN we need: Reaffirming our Collective Commitment to Multilateralism’. The results of this enormous dialogue will be presented at the one-day General Assembly commemorative session on 21 September.

There will be a very great need for resources. The G20, to whom we would naturally look in this regard, issued a comprehensive statement on 26 March, pledging themselves to do ‘whatever it takes’ on coronavirus. It will be a far bigger job than anything they have tackled so far.

The creative efforts required will certainly include an expansion in depth and width of governance, the complement of government, not its adversary. It is implicit in particular in the flexible formulations of the Preamble and Chapter IX (International Economic and Social Co-operation) of the UN Charter. ‘Governance’ was defined in 1995 by the Commission on Global Governance as ‘the sum of the many ways individuals and institutions, public and private, manage their common affairs’. It recognises no national boundaries.

We are conditioned to think in terms of national affairs on the one hand, and international affairs on the other. Coronavirus has already done much to hasten the disappearance of the distinction between the two.

The Imperative of the Wellbeing of Succeeding Generations

While I have breath, I shall not cease from banging the drum for the Preamble in general. But let me concentrate for a moment on its very first sentence: ‘We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’. Concern for, and with, succeeding generations is paramount and a constant. The scourge from which they are to be saved is obviously, not war itself, as it was perceived in 1945. Much has changed greatly for the better. Much else raises problems which divide society. Much further depends on what young people think about the unfolding of events.

Sir Peter Marshall joined the UK Diplomatic Service in 1949. As a private secretary to the British Ambassador in Washington, he had a groundling’s view of Winston Churchill’s last prime ministerial visit in 1954. While working at the British Embassy in Paris, he knew Jean Monnet, and subsequently rose to become Economic Under-Secretary in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He served as UK Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva and, subsequently, as Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General.


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