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World

United Nations Charter celebrates 65 years

Often referred to as the constitution of the international community, the United Nations Charter is the glue that keeps the world together. Its principles have stood the test of time in the face of many challenges.

Logo of UN

The UN Charter serves as a global constitution

Sixty-five years ago, World War II allies met in San Francisco with scores of other interested nations to create a successor organization to the League of Nations, which had failed spectacularly in its mission to prevent a repeat of WW I.

Six months later, on October 24, 1945, the Charter of the United Nations was ratified, and the UN was officially born. Its then 51 members were clear about their common purpose.

"We the peoples of the United Nations [are] determined: to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind; 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…"

Those opening words of the preamble set both the tone of the ensuing 111 articles and the standards for economic cooperation, justice and security that the modern world has come to take as read. And although the ranks of the UN have swollen to 192 since the charter was first conceived, it has been able to accommodate them in every new country without being subjected to innumerable amendments or compromising its core principles.

Organic evolution

Which is not to say that the United Nations has been stagnating since those immediate post-war days, Edward Luck, special adviser to the UN Secretary-General, told Deutsche Welle.

"From the outside it looks like the same organization it was in 1945, but it has been able to change its agenda quite radically over time," Luck said. "It has been able to expand its legions of related organizations and mandates to tackle more and more issues in the world."

The United Nations headquarters in New York

The United Nations is headquartered in New York

Those issues include human rights, development, the environment and women's rights, which although mentioned in the preamble, were not so prevalent back in 1945. But as these matters have come to the fore, the preamble, which doesn't have the same legal status as the text itself, has taken on greater significance.

"It reflects people's aspirations and ambitions," Luck said, adding that over time the UN has helped turn those aspirations into expected international standards.

Reference material

And in so doing it has provided the world with a framework for good behavior, which as Christian Schaller, expert on international law and the United Nations with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) told Deutsche Welle, is a source of constant reference.

A huge room with seats and tables

The General Assembly has not evolved much in 65 years

"Member states know that it is one of the most fundamental documents ever in terms of peace, security and development," he said. "When there is a conflict between states, both parties try to cement their arguments and legitimize their interests by referring back to international law and the charter."

And although there is a tendency to squeeze the charter's articles for opportunistic justification, Luck is convinced that the very fact of its existence provides a certain sense of order and limits the lengths to which states will go in order to get what they want.

"In times of great crisis or deep division among members, it helps them not to go over the deep end or become destructive," Luck explained.

To reform or not to reform

But for all that, the UN and its foundational treaty are not immune to criticism. Schaller is one of many who hold that having China, Russia, France, the UK and the US as the only permanent members of the Security Council does not reflect the reality of the modern world.

"There is a need for reforms in order to give Africa, Asia and Latin America more of a voice on the council," Schaller said. "There should be an increase in the number of permanent members and they should include countries from these regions."

But making that happen is not easy. Such a major change would require agreement from the five permanent members - each of which has the power of veto - and two-thirds of members would also need to vote for it in the General Assembly and ratify it at home. While Luck agrees that at some point down the line there ought to be an amendment to the Security Council, he does not believe in altering the charter for the sake of it.

A meeting of the Security Council

The Security Council does not reflect the reality of the modern world

"You want to change one thing, someone else wants to change something else and typically there is a trade-off, so at the end of the day you end up with something that is really not all that rational."

As far as he is concerned, the basic structure of the charter and the balance of power within the organization works, and if the 192 member states sat down together today to try and come up with an international constitution, they would be unlikely to pull it off. The expectations would be higher, the issues more controversial and the detail likely so minute that it would become a quagmire of rules and regulations, rather than the clear, if sometimes quaint international constitution it is.

As Edward Luck says, people might criticize the charter and the UN, but there has never been anything like it in human history.

"It is not a global government, and neither should it be, but it is a place where everyone can get together and try to avoid catastrophes."

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge

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