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Learning about the foundation of the United Nations 75 years ago

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Latest from our Education Worker, Karen Robinson

In 2020 people from different parts of the globe marked the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.

In 1945 – the year the Second World War ended – an international conference was held over nine weeks in San Francisco. It represented an extraordinary coming together of countries all over the world to work for peace. At the end of the conference the United Nations Charter was signed.

The following is a quotation from a documentary produced at the time about the founding of the UN:

“And for 9 weeks in the spring of 1945 San Francisco was the centre of men’s hopes for lasting peace. Delegates representing 46 nations came to San Francisco on April 25th 1945, representing almost 2,000 million people, more than 80% of humanity. All at war when the conference was begun, they came with hope born of common struggle. They came together to design machinery to end war, a curse which in 30 years had killed 40 million human beings, maimed countless millions more, both armed and unarmed”.

Later four other nations joined the conference. The fascinating documentary shows footage of discussions taking place between delegates in the course of writing the Charter.

Looking at the moving scenes I was struck by what a formidable and inspirational undertaking it was; so many delegates from so many backgrounds coming together to discuss, and strive to agree, the wording of the new Charter.

I was also struck that nearly every delegate was a man.

The fact that it looks so strange now, so stark, is testimony to how far women’s representation has come, even though so much remains to be done. Although the conference was so dominated by men, much of the message was radical, and is still very relatable and relevant 75 years on:

” … and in the words of the Charter to practise tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours. At San Francisco 50 united nations reaffirmed their faith in the dignity and worth of the human person, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. The representatives of 2,000 million people pledged to promote freedom from fear, and freedom of expression, freedom from want, and freedom of worship”. - Universal Declaration - UN

While the message of the conference was anti-war, it was not anti-militarist. It saw armed force as playing a part in trying to prevent war;

… the delegates of the United Nations took concrete steps to settle their disputes by peaceful means. to prevent threats to the peace, to suppress aggression, and pledged to place their armed forces at the disposal of the international organisation. For speedy combined action, air forces will be held immediately available. Final responsibility is vested in the powerful Security Council authorised to work swiftly and effectively with the aid of its military staff committee”.

Moreover there was a stark contrast between different aspects of the decision-making structure agreed for the new organisation. On the one hand there was the incredibly egalitarian structure of the General Assembly (each member nation had one vote regardless of its size). It was agreed that any matter related to the Charter would be discussed here.

On the other hand there was the Security Council where there was a huge concentration, and imbalance, of power. The Security Council had five permanent members (the Republic of China, France, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America) and six other members elected by the General Assembly to serve for two years. It received recommendations from the General Assembly and was described in the documentary as the ‘enforcement arm’ of the organisation.

Today 163 sovereign states are members of the United Nations. They continue to have equal representation at the General Assembly. However, as laid down in the Charter, all member states are obliged to comply with the Security Council decisions.

The five permanent members of the Security Council are the same as 75 years ago (except that the Russian Federation now has the membership previously held by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). They have a veto over decisions. So the imbalance of power embedded in the original structure has survived intact. In 1963 however an amendment was made to the Charter about the non-permanent members of the Security Council. It increased the number of non-permanent members to ten, and in the following geographical distribution; five from African and Asian States, one from Eastern European States, two from Latin American States, and two from Western European and other States. Today the powers of the Security Council are summarised in Wikipedia as, ‘establishing peacekeeping operations, enacting international sanctions, and authorising military action’.

I think, 75 years after the founding of the United Nations, it is possible to continue to oppose the imbalance of power within the Security Council, and the inclusion of military means as a way to try to prevent war, while celebrating the bold and radical and progressive strands of the UN which stretch right back to its foundation;

“This was a people’s conference, responsible to the conscience of the world. Here in the midst of a war, the world’s people collaborated in the drafting of a workable, international constitution. It was a conference to write a people’s charter, opening with the words: ‘We the people 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 …’”

Many people associate the UN with the profoundly important process of defining human rights. The hugely influential Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was agreed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948, three years after the founding of the UN.

In a future blog I plan to look at the extent to which conscientious objection to military service is accepted as a human right, and the relevance this has to Conscience and its work to achieve recognition of the right to conscientious objection to financial conscription.

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