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An ambitious Charter: 75 years of the UN’s founding document

Last Friday 26th June marked the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Charter of the United Nations, the document which established that organisation. To grasp the significance and character of the Charter, it is necessary to look at some of its key provisions, to discover the principles it lays down and the future of international relations which it envisioned in June 1945. Against the backdrop of the inhuman outrages of the years leading up to it, the sense of undaunted hope and determination to ensure a just and peaceful future for humanity emerge strikingly from the document.

Article 1 of the Charter lists the UN’s purposes:

1 To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;

2 To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;

3 To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and

4 To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.”

Article 2 sets out the principles which the UN and its Member States must act in accordance with, in pursuit of the purposes just listed. Those principles include the sovereign equality of all UN members and their duty to fulfil in good faith their Charter obligations. Article 103 states that their Charter obligations prevail, in the event of a conflict between those obligations and obligations under any other international agreement.

Article 2(7) is intended to protect against interference in the internal affairs of UN members, as it provides:


“Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter Vll.”

Regarding the maintenance of international peace, Article 2(3) and (4) state:

3  All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

As Article 51 makes clear though, nothing in the Charter “shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security….”

To further its goals, the Charter also established the UN’s principal organs, including the General Assembly, the Security Council, Economic and Social Council and the International Court of Justice.

The General Assembly consists of all members of the UN, each member having one vote. It can discuss any questions or matters within the scope of the Charter or relating to the powers and functions of any organs provided for in the Charter, and can generally make recommendations to UN members and/or to the Security Council on any such questions or matters. It also receives reports from the Security Council and other UN organs and approves the UN’s budget.[i]

The Security Council has 15 members. Its five permanent members are the US, UK, Russia,[ii] France and China. The other 10 are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. Each Security Council member has one vote but, except for procedural matters, generally each permanent member has power to veto a proposed decision of the Council. The Council has “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”, and in carrying out its duties under this responsibility it is required to act in accordance with the Purposes and Principles of the UN. By Article 25, UN members “agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the…Charter.”[iii]

Chapter VI confers on the Security Council various powers for facilitating the settlement of disputes by peaceful means, including by making recommendations for that purpose. Under Chapter VII, stronger measures are available to the Council where there is a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression. These measures can include “complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.”[iv] If the Security Council considers such measures inadequate, “it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.”[v] Article 43(1) provides:

“All Members of the United Nations, in order to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security, undertake to make available to the Security Council, on its call and in accordance with a special agreement or agreements, armed forces, assistance, and facilities, including rights of passage, necessary for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security.”

However, that obligation on UN members “exists only in accordance with one or more special agreements”. Such agreements “were never concluded and no State is obligated to make troops available to the Council in a particular situation. Consequently, the United Nations has to enter into negotiations every time a situation calls for the establishment of an operation.”[vi] While the ambition of Article 43 has not been realised though, the UN has had considerable success in developing peacekeeping activities through the support of members, with 13 current operations and 58 past operations.

Because the UN has existed for the best part of a century, we can easily overlook how ambitious an initiative it was at the time of its foundation. In practice of course, the UN’s record has been mixed. As we know, to the grave detriment of so many people, the UN has not always been nearly as effective in maintaining international peace and security as was hoped. On human rights, some of its agencies pressure nations to deny the smallest and most vulnerable the basic right to life itself.[vii] Recognition of these realities, and more besides, would necessarily form part of any comprehensive assessment of the UN, although we should not forget the good it has done either. Its Charter is infused with so much of what is virtuous in humanity. With all of its potential for good, the great challenge is to ensure it fulfils that potential, and to guard against failings and misuse of an organisation founded on the best of intentions.



Geoffrey Sumner is a barrister living and working in Galway   




[i] Chapter IV of the Charter.
[ii] The Charter still refers to the USSR as a permanent member, but Russia succeeded to the rights and obligations of the USSR under the Charter when the USSR ceased to exist in December 1991: Resolutions and Decisions of the Security Council 1991 page v https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/229721?ln=en
[iii] Chapter V of the Charter
[iv] Article 41
[v] Article 42. Commentary and case examples on the use of this and other relevant Articles of the Charter by the Security Council is available via the Repertoire of Security Council Practice at https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/content/repertoire/actions#rel5
[vi] Repertoire of Security Council Practice https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/content/repertoire/actions#rel5
[vii] This persistent problem is responded to quite well in various documents. See for example a Joint Statement of 21 countries on Universal Health Coverage, as part of the 74th Session of the General Assembly, 2019 (https://www.hhs.gov/about/agencies/oga/global-health-diplomacy/protecting-life-global-health-policy/joint-statement-unga/index.html) and the San José Articles, 2011 (https://sanjosearticles.com/?page_id=2).


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