Today in history: The United Nations Charter is signed in 1945

On June 26, 70 years ago, on the stage of San Francisco’s Veterans Auditorium (now the Herbst Theatre in the center of the War Memorial Veterans Building), delegates from 50 nations signed the United Nations Charter, establishing the world body as a means of saving “succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The Germans had surrendered to the Allied forces a month earlier; the war in the Pacific continued for another six weeks.

The Charter of the United Nations is the foundational treaty of the newly created intergovernmental organization that emerged from World War II.

The document entered into force on October 24, 1945, after being ratified by the original five permanent members of the Security Council – China, France, the USSR, the United Kingdom, and the United States – and a majority of the other signatories.

As a charter, it is a constituent treaty, and all members are bound by its articles. Furthermore, its Article 103 states that obligations to the United Nations prevail over all other treaty obligations. Most countries in the world have now ratified the Charter.

The document describes the organs and institutions of the UN and their respective powers, including arrangements for integrating the UN with established international law. Various chapters deal with the Security Council’s power to investigate and mediate disputes, and to authorize economic, diplomatic, and military sanctions, as well as the use of military force; the role of regional arrangements to maintain peace and security within their own region; the UN’s powers for economic and social cooperation; the Trusteeship Council, which oversaw decolonization; and the powers of the International Court of Justice and the United Nations Secretariat.

The Preamble to the treaty reads as follows:

We the peoples of the United Nations determined

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • 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, and
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

And for these ends

  • to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and
  • to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
  • to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
  • to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,

Have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.

It hardly bears mentioning that the lofty goals of the United Nations have all too often been ignored in the 70 years since 1945. The UN has received full, unqualified support from few of its members, who have often gone to war and acted unilaterally where consultation and cooperation would clearly have been the wiser course. Owing to the veto power on the part of the permanent members of the Security Council, the UN has sometimes been incapacitated from securing peace. The UN has also served as a sounding board for grandstanding political leaders trying to promulgate their views to an international audience, although in some cases (speeches by representatives of Cuba come to mind) corporate media control has often denied these voices any other exposure.

Nevertheless, in many of its programs, the UN has also served as a widely respected moral voice for refugees, the environment, women’s rights, labor, agricultural development, disaster relief, and cultural preservation, to name a few of its concerns. The model for a more concerted community of nations exists and would be more effective if especially the great powers would be willing to sacrifice some of their hegemony for the broader benefit of humanity.

Adapted from the Peace History Index, Wikipedia and other sources.

Photo: Gerard E. Lescot, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Chairman of the Haiti Delegation, addresses the 6th Plenary Session at the Opera House, 1 May 1945, San Francisco, United States. UN Photo/Rosenberg





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