The Making of the United Nations

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The creation of the UN at the San Francisco Conference in June 1945 was the culmination of four years of concentrated preparation. During these years, the idea of a world organization to replace the League of Nations was first debated and then fleshed out. Many of the important principles of the UN adopted at San Francisco were derived from earlier conferences.


  1. The Inter-Allied Declaration (London Declaration) of 12 June 1941. In a dark hour of World War II, representatives of the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa and of the governments-in-exile of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and Yugoslavia assembled at St. James's Palace in London. It was there that each pledged not to sign a separate peace document and declared: "The only true basis of enduring peace is the willing cooperation of free peoples in a world in which, relieved of the menace of aggression, all may enjoy economic and social security" Ten days later, Hitler launched his attack against the Soviet Union.
  2. The Atlantic Charter of 14 August 1941. British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt met aboard the cruiser USS Atlanta offthe coast of Newfoundland and signed a declaration giving the first indication that the two powers would strive for the creation of a new world organization once peace was restored. In it, they announced "certain common principles of their respective countries for a better future for the world: the need for a secure peace; the abandonment by all nations of the use of force; the disarmament of aggressors; and the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security."
  3. The Declaration by United Nations of 1 January 1942. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and the entry of the United States into the war, the conflict assumed even wider dimensions. Japan's initial successes were staggering, and it was clear that the coalition against the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan, and their allies) would need to be strengthened. On New Year's Day 1942 in Washington, D.C., representatives of 26 states signed a declaration whose preamble called for subscription "to a common program of purposes and principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter" and explicitly referred to the need for promoting respect for human rights on an international basis. In that declaration, the phrase "united nations" was first used. It had been coined by President Roosevelt to express the unity of the signatory nations in their determination to withstand the onslaught of the Axis powers. The declaration was subsequently signed by the governments of 21 additional states.
  4. The Moscow Declaration of 30 October 1943. This declaration laid the foundation for the establishment of a new world body to replace the League of Nations. Meeting at a time when victory seemed in sight, the US, British, and Soviet foreign ministers and an ambassador from China drew up the Declaration of Four Nations on General Security, which recognized "the necessity of establishing at the earliest practicable date a general international organization based on the principle of sovereign equality of all peace-loving States, and open to membership by all such States, large and small, for the maintenance of international peace and security."
  5. Dumbarton Oaks Conference, Washington, 21 August7 October 1944. The Dumbarton Oaks conference was the first bigpower meeting convoked specifically to discuss the establishment of a new world organization. At the beginning of the conference, the delegations offered widely differing proposals. On some of these divergent views they eventually reached agreement. For example, the British and Soviet delegations accepted an American position that favored a strong role for the General Assembly, in which all member states would be represented and which, therefore, would be the most "democratic" of the UN organs. There was agreement that a small Security Council should be "primarily responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security" and that the big powers should have the right of veto in that body. However, a deadlock developed over a Soviet proposal that a big power might exercise this right in disputes in which it was itself involved. This the United States and the British refused to accept.
  6. Yalta Conference, February 1945. The resultant deadlock was resolved at a meeting in Yalta attended by Prime Minister Churchill, President Roosevelt, and Marshal Stalin. The "Yalta formula," actually a compromise proposed by the United States and rejected by the USSR at Dumbarton Oaks, provided that if any of the Big Five powers was involved in a dispute, it would not have the right to veto Security Council recommendations for peaceful settlement of the issue but would be able to veto a Security Council decision to invoke sanctions against it. After some initial objections from Churchill, the three leaders at Yalta also managed to agree on the basic principles of a trusteeship system for the administration of certain dependent territories under the aegis of the projected world body.

On 11 February 1945, the three leaders announced that a conference would be convened in San Francisco on 25 April 1945 for the "earliest possible establishment of a general international organization" along the lines proposed at Dumbarton Oaks.

25 APRIL26 JUNE 1945

Despite the sudden death of President Roosevelt in early April, the United Nations Conference on International Organization convened as scheduled. President Roosevelt had been working on his speech to the conference before he died. That never-delivered address contains the often-quoted words: "The work, my friends, is peace; more than an end of this waran end to the beginning of all wars; as we go forward toward the greatest contribution that any generation of human beings can make in this worldthe contribution of lasting peaceI ask you to keep up your faith."

China, the USSR, the United Kingdom, and the United States acted as the sponsoring powers, and 46 other states participated, comprising all those that had signed the Declaration by United Nations of 1 January 1942 or had declared war on the Axis powers by March 1945. The huge conference was attended by 282 delegates and 1,444 other officially accredited persons from those 50 countries and by representatives of scores of private organizations interested in world affairs (50 from the United States alone). The daily output of documents averaged half a million pages.

Major Modifications in the Dumbarton Oaks Draft for the UN Charter

After much debate, the smaller and medium-sized nations succeeded in restricting the Big Five's use of the veto in the Security Council. Herbert V. Evatt, then deputy prime minister of Australia, who was in the forefront of that fight, declared: "In the end our persistence had some good effect. The Great Powers came to realize that the smaller powers would not accept a Charter unless certain minimum demands for restriction of the veto were accepted, viz., that there should be no veto upon the placing of items on the [Security Council] agenda and no veto on discussion [in the Security Council] . If this vital concession had not been won, it is likely that discussion of matters in the open forum of the Security Council would have been rendered impossible: If so, the United Nations might well have broken up."

Another major change resulted from the desire of the smaller nations to give the world organization more responsibilities in social and economic matters and in colonial problems. Accordingly, the Economic and Social Council and the Trusteeship Council were given wider authority than was provided for in the Dumbarton Oaks draft, and they were made principal organs of the UN.

Creation of a New World Court

The San Francisco Conference also unanimously adopted a constitutioncalled the Statutefor an International Court of Justice to be incorporated as a main organ of the UN and to succeed the Permanent Court of International Justice established by the League of Nations. The Statute, which had originally been draft ed by jurists from 44 nations meeting in Washington in April 1945, became part of the Charter of the UN.

Unanimous Acceptance of the Charter

The UN Charter touches on so many delicate and complex matters that its unanimous acceptance has often been ascribed to the particularly auspicious circumstances prevailing in the spring of 1945. In spite of some dissonance, the San Francisco Conference was imbued with a spirit of high mission. The Charter was worked out within two months. It was signed by 50 nations in all its official languages in an impressive ceremony on 26 June 1945. The five official languages at that time were Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. The sixth official UN language, Arabic, was not adopted until 1973.

24 OCTOBER 1945

The new world body officially came into being on 24 October 1945, when the Charter had been duly ratified by all permanent members of the Security Council and a majority of the other original signatory powers. This date is universally celebrated as United Nations Day.


Like other political constitutions, the UN Charter contains provisions for its own amendment. Amendments to the Charter come into force when they have been adopted by a vote of two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly and ratified by two thirds of the UN member states, including all the permanent members of the Security Council.

The amendments that have been adopted are essentially adjustments made to take account of the huge increase in UN membership, which has almost quadrupled since 1945. As originally constituted, the 11-member Security Council and the 18-member Economic and Social Council were considered adequate to reflect the different interests of the various geographical groupings of states within the organization. However, the admission to the UN during the late 1950s and early 1960s of large numbers of newly independent African, Asian, and Caribbean countries created additional groupings. To accommodate their interests without jeopardizing those of the older groups, the General Assembly, in 1963, adopted amendments to Articles 23, 27, and 61 of the Charter. The first amendment enlarged the membership of the Security Council to 15; the second required that decisions of the Security Council be made by an affirmative vote of nine members (formerly seven); the third enlarged the membership of the Economic and Social Council to 27. All three amendments officially came into force on 31 August 1965.

The Economic and Social Council was enlarged to 54 by an amendment to Article 61 of the Charter, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1971 and became operative on 24 September 1973.

Charter Review. Under the Charter, a general conference of UN members "for the purpose of reviewing the Charter may be held at a date and place to be fixed by a two-thirds vote of the members of the General Assembly and a vote of any seven members [amended to nine, as of 1965] of the Security Council." In addition, the Charter provided that if such a conference was not held by the tenth regular assembly session (in 1955), the proposal to call such a conference should be placed on the agenda. Accordingly, the 1955 General Assembly considered the matter and decided that a general review conference should be held at an "appropriate" but unspecified date in the future. A committee consisting of the full UN membership was established to consider the time and place at which the conference should be held. The Security Council concurred in the General Assembly's decision by a vote of 9 to 1, with 1 abstention. The committee met every two years until September 1967 without recommending a conference. It then became inactive, recommending that any member state might request it to meet.

At its 1974 session, the General Assembly established a 42-member Ad Hoc Committee on the Charter to consider specific proposals from governments for "enhancing the ability of the United Nations to achieve its purposes." The committee reported to the 1975 Assembly session that there was a fundamental divergence of opinion on the necessity for carrying out a review of the Charter and made no recommendations for action. The General Assembly decided, however, to continue the committee as a Special Committee on the Charter of the UN and on the Strengthening of the Role of the Organization and increased its membership to 47. In pursuit of its mandate, the committee has met every year since 1975 and has reported to each session of the General Assembly.

For example, in 1988 the Special Committee recommended, and the General Assembly adopted, a "Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment"; in 1990 it proposed the rationalization of existing UN procedures, which were adopted by the General Assembly; and in 1991, the Special Committee considered the final text of the Handbook on the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes between States. That same year the General Assembly requested that the Secretary-General publish and disseminate the handbook.

The Special Committee also considers proposals concerning cooperation between the United Nations and regional organizations in the maintenance of international peace and security, conciliation rules of the United Nations, and assistance to other states affected by the imposition of sanctions by the decision of the Security Council, pursuant to Article 50 of the Charter.