United Nations Day

On this day in 1945, the Charter of the United Nations came into effect, establishing the U.N. as the world’s premier international organization and setting forth, for the first time in history, an aspirational global standard for human rights, international cooperation, and global security — hence the observation of United Nations Day.

The United Nations emerged during the Second World War as the formal name for the Allies that opposed the Axis powers, although the idea of creating a new world organization — to replace the moribund League of Nations that was created after WWI — was conceptualized by the U.S. State Department in 1939. 

On January 1, 1942, the Declaration by United Nations was signed by the “Big Four” Allied countries — the U.S., Soviet Union, U.K., and China — and twenty-two other countries to affirm that they were united to “defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands, and that they are now engaged in a common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world (notwithstanding the fact that many signatories had far from clean hands in this regard).

U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had suggested “United Nations” as an alternative to “Associated Powers”, and the name thereafter remained synonymous with “the Allies”. By the end of the war, most of the world’s independent countries had signed the Declaration, which would eventually form the basis of the U.N. Charter. The Charter, which is now ratified by the vast majority of the world’s countries, not only established the institutional and procedural framework of the U.N., but also radically sought to enshrine universal values of human rights, human dignity, egalitarianism, conflict resolution, self-determination, and social progress.


World War II poster from the U.S. on the Preamble of the Charter of the United Nations

The Preamble of the U.N. Charter, while not setting forth any rights or duties on member states, encapsulates what should be the core motives and goals of the global community:

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 neighbours, 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 goes without saying that most of the world (and the U.N. itself) continues to fall short of the idealistic aspirations of the U.N. Charter, although it is also worth noting that in many respects, the world is in many ways a more peaceful and prosperous place than ever before. This is due in no small part to the fact that we now have both a formal venue and a global cultural norm that provides for peace and security. Never before did people even conceive such a thing, let alone put it into practice.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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