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The Charter of the United Nations

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The United Nations - the UN, that organisation which you've probably heard of, but aren't sure what it involves. A good summary is that it is the multi-national organisation, formed in 1945, now representing all 193 countries1. The UN has an enormous mandate, seeking to prevent world wars2 and improve the situation of humanity in numerous ways - whether that be improving human rights, the economic condition of its members or providing aid when needed. The 193 countries are bonded together (in theory) inside the UN by their common signing of the UN Charter... more on which below.

The Treaty Above All Treaties - But When Did it Start?

The UN Charter was signed by 50 nations on 26 June, 1945, and would come into effect on 24 October that year. You might notice something here - the date of signing is actually before the formal end of World War II. Yet the road to the creation of the Charter, that still stands more than 70 years on, was started in the midst of the darkest hour of the war.

The UN offers an excellent summary of how the Charter slowly came together. The full version of the Charter can also be found on the UN website. Its history can be summarised in roughly seven notable steps, although it should be remembered at each point that every step had either hundreds or thousands of hours of political and diplomatic work at both the highest and lowest levels.

  • The Declaration of St James' Palace - June 1941. This was 22 months into the war and with much of Britain in ruins only nine months after the end of the Battle of Britain. Yet with the Americans not having entered the war and the Germans not to attack Russia for several more weeks, Britain and its Empire seemed to stand alone. Despite the daunting odds being faced, a determination formed to think not only of the war but what would come after. Representatives of Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa and the nine exiled governments of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Yugoslavia and General de Gaulle of France met in St James' Palace. A declaration was made, the most resonating line of which reads simply: 'The only true basis of enduring peace is the willing co-operation of free peoples'.

  • The Atlantic Charter - August 1941. With the battle of the Atlantic still raging and truly vast amounts of shipping being sunk monthly, Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt met at sea to make a new affirmation. This joint affirmation would contain various additional clauses - the harbingers of several of those that would be seen in the future Charter of the United Nations. This freely formed agreement (as opposed to those being seen between Hitler and his vassal rulers) continued the upbeat support of freedom. Clause 6 reads: 'After the final destruction of Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want'. This Charter went on to be signed by a larger group - including the now Allied USSR.

  • Declaration by United Nations - 1 January, 1942. With the USA now at war with the Axis powers and countries within Central and South America following them, the free side of the full globe signed a new declaration. This Declaration did two main things: it reaffirmed the Atlantic Charter (for an increased list of countries), and it bound the Allies together to do their utmost to resist the Tripartite pact. It also forbade them from seeking individual peace with the enemy. The Declaration is more important in how the Charter of the United Nations would be formed - not for its content, but because only countries that had signed the Declaration and declared war on Germany by March 1945 could participate. This led to 26 original signatories and 21 additional signatories.

  • Moscow and Tehran Conferences - October and December 1943. With the Allied powers starting to close in and liberating an increasing amount of territory, two conferences were held to come to a firmer conclusion about the post-war situation. The main notable mark of the Moscow Declaration would be the specific acceptance that a new international body would need to be set up immediately after the war. The other point of note is that the declarations were specifically signed by the 'Big Four' Allies - the USA, UK, USSR and China. These four nations, along with France3 would become extremely important in the set-up of the new body.

  • Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta - 1944-45. It was at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC that the actual creation of a blueprint of the United Nations would take place. Much of the form of the UN and its articles would be set up here. The key creation of the idea that a Security Council would have forces to command and deploy made the most obvious note of difference from the covenant that had formed the League of Nations. At Yalta, one key difference to the blueprint was made - they resolved how the five permanent members of the Security Council4 and the six other rotating members would vote.

  • San Francisco Conference - 1945. For two months, 46 nations would come together5. The UN-in-creation would itself invite the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, newly-liberated Denmark and Argentina to attend.

    These 50 nations had to try to create consensus on the widest ranging and most complicated treaty to date - an international body that would directly represent over 80% of the world's population. There would be 850 delegates, 2,700 additional staff and 2,500 reporters - an international presence that was unprecedented. Two months and 400 meetings had to lead to an agreement where at least two thirds of the nations (and all five Permanent Members) could agree to it.

  • The Last Meeting - 1945. So, on to 25 June, when all the Head Delegates gathered in San Francisco's Opera House to consider the final draft. Lord Halifax, presiding over the session, opened with his thought: 'This issue upon which we are about to vote is as important as any we shall ever vote on in our lifetime.' The next day he then suggested a break from the normal raising of hands, given the singular importance of the day. As the vote For was to be called, every single delegate would rise and remain standing, to a roaring ovation. Thus the UN Charter would be born with the free world standing in solidarity.

So What's Inside?

The UN Charter is not egregiously long (roughly 9,000 words) compared to other similar treaties, such as the Treaty of Europe (around 155,000 words!). However, parts of the Charter are either very dry, pertaining to just matters of procedure, or defunct. This Entry will just aim to focus on the details that are most important/interesting (alas these are not always the same thing). The Charter is split into 19 chapters and a Preamble.


While the Preamble to the Charter does not set out specific rights or requirements of Member States it does give a good idea of how the rest of the Charter should be viewed.

'To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war' - this remains commonly accepted as the UN's (and its Charter's) greatest priority and purpose.

'To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person' - Interestingly, in the rest of the Charter there would be very little mentioned about what rights specific people have. However, this preamble is the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Because the UDHR is a clarification of the Charter, it is therefore (alas, frequently only in theory) ranked above all other laws and treaties.

Chapter I - Purposes and Principles

Article 1.1 - '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' - So we see the first requirement of Member States is to ensure peace and, using the UN, to actively remove threats to that peace.

Article 2.1 - 'The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members' - All States have the same protections from the Charter. Additionally, this confirms that, in the General Assembly, the State with 50,000 citizens has the same one vote as the country with 100 million.

Article 2.7 - '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 VII'. This is a big one - every time you hear a complaint of, 'Why doesn't the UN do anything about a country abusing its citizens?' this is the answer. The UN doesn't have the right to involve itself unless a country is interfering with another country; additionally the UN doesn't have much of an ability to force actions on anyone even if it wanted to... with the exception of that Chapter VII, see below.

Chapter II - Membership

Article 4.1 - 'Membership in the United Nations is open to all other peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgement of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations'. - This was the original reason why none of the defeated States were allowed in - everyone else had earned their right to be in the UN by being on the side of right, as it were. That would change and ultimately now, if you are a cohesive State you will almost certainly be accepted as a member.

Article 4.2 - 'The admission of any such state to membership in the United Nations will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council'. - It's the latter part of this that's important. The Security Council (with its veto-carrying members) have to agree to any new State joining. This means that what you or I might accept to be a nation can be refused from becoming a Member State. The big two examples of this are Palestine (barred by the USA's objection in support of Israel) and Taiwan (blocked by China which views Taiwan as part of itself).

Chapter III - Organs

This very short chapter just sets out the various top-level organs the UN has. These are: The General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Secretariat, the International Court of Justice and the Trusteeship Council. Of these the latter is defunct.

Chapter IV - The General Assembly

Article 12 - This states that the General Assembly can't try and resolve a security issue while the Security Council is considering it. This has caused a lot of controversy over the years when the Security Council is being deadlocked by one nation or another.

Article 19 - 'A Member of the United Nations which is in arrears in the payment of its financial contributions to the Organization shall have no vote in the General Assembly if the amount of its arrears equals or exceeds the amount of the contributions due from it for the preceding two full years. The General Assembly may, nevertheless, permit such a Member to vote if it is satisfied that the failure to pay is due to conditions beyond the control of the Member'. - The General Assembly is usually quite generous in allowing nations to maintain their voting rights when they're having financial troubles. For the 2014/15 session, five countries were technically in breach of this Article, but only Yemen had its voting rights suspended.

Article 22 - Allows the General Assembly to create other bodies. This means every body and United Nations Organisation other than the six organs defined elsewhere in the Charter. Some of these bodies are extremely well known, such as UNICEF (United Nations (International) Children's Emergency Fund), created all the way back in December 1946.

Chapter V - The Security Council

Article 23 - 'The Security Council shall consist of fifteen Members of the United Nations. 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 shall be permanent members of the Security Council. The General Assembly shall elect ten other Members of the United Nations to be non-permanent members of the Security Council, due regard being specially paid in the first instance to the contribution of Members of the United Nations to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the Organization, and also to equitable geographical distribution'.

This is the Article which provides for the five permanent members of the Security Council: USA, Russia6, UK, France and the People's Republic of China7. Ten other States are gathered from the rest of the world, proportioned by geographic region.

Article 27 - 'Decisions of the Security Council on all other matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members'. Another big one - one reason why the UN never seems capable of acting in a world crisis is that usually the parties accused of being at fault are supported by a member with a veto - Russia vetoing resolutions about Syria is a recent example.

Chapter VI - Pacific Resolution of Disputes

No, this isn't an ocean-related article but instead sets out how the Charter stresses that parties should be using peaceful methods to resolve conflicts and that other methods are unacceptable. The Security Council is required to keep track of such issues and attempt to convince States to abide by peaceful regulation. It also advises the use of the International Court of Justice as a possible medium.

Chapter VII - Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace and Acts of Aggression

This is the 'action' chapter of the Charter. The clauses within it are what allows the Security Council to act - it makes for 'fun' reading. Remember that this is the only Council which can make binding resolutions.

Article 40 - This is the 'warning clause'. If the Security Council believes parties are acting in a suitably disliked fashion, then it has to issue the equivalent of a cease and desist order.

Article 41 - 'The Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures. These may 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.' - This is the 'sanctions clause'. The Security Council can impose either targeted sanctions (usually diplomatic prohibitions, travel bans or luxury goods embargoes). Alternatively it can impose full economic embargoes, banning any trade or financial contact with the country. Since this requires the Permanent members' support, their authority suffices to mean that almost nobody breaks these sanctions.

Article 42 - 'Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be 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'. - So if the sanctions fail (it's rare to not give them at least a chance) forces of UN Member nations come under the UN's command and act to impose peace. These deployments of peacekeepers (there can be a degree of peacemaking about them) are always authorised in this fashion, even if the deployment is asked for by the nation in question.

Article 43 - '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'. - While this implies that nations must supply forces to the Security Council if asked, it's generally accepted that compulsion would lead to terrible effects. Instead certain States provide most of the forces - usually membership of the Security Council (if the country is powerful enough) brings an assumption that they will 'do their share'.

Article 51 - 'Nothing in the present 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'. - Despite the Security Council's role, countries can still protect themselves; they just can't attack aggressively (the question of pre-emptive self-defence remains a tricky one, of course).

Chapter VIII - Regional Bodies

This Chapter just notes that regional bodies are free to exist and that the UN can interact with them if beneficial. It prohibits regional bodies fulfilling the peacekeeping role without approval by the Security Council. UN backing is reasonably common, as with only a single exception - the various combined peacekeeping operations around Israel, where there are no suitable bodies - the Security Council has always worked with a regional body when deploying peacekeeping forces.

Chapter IX - International Economic and Social Co-Operation

This Chapter notes that States should work for a higher standard of living. Organisations to aid co-operation in this role are authorised and members agree to support these.

Chapter X - The Economic and Social Council

This chapter sets out the style, procedure and make-up of the Economic and Social Council. Perhaps the most relevant part is, 'The Economic and Social Council may make or initiate studies and reports with respect to international economic, social, cultural, educational, health, and related matters and may make recommendations with respect to any such matters to the General Assembly to the Members of the United Nations, and to the specialized agencies concerned'.. These studies (more usually done by various sub-bodies) do provide some of the information on the world's economic situation that you may see appear in the news each year.

Chapter XI - Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories

Article 73 - 'Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories'. At the time of the UN's founding there were a huge number of territories that fell into this category. Now they are reasonably rare and are happy with their status - this Article requires the countries to address the situation if their view changes.

Chapter XII - International Trusteeship System

This paragraph sets out the system under which mandates over various territories would be managed by the UN, rather than any particular State (as had been the system in the League of Nations, leading to a variety of problems). As of 1994 no mandates exist - the Trusteeship council was folded, leading this Chapter to be somewhat defunct. The next time the Charter is amended, this Chapter is set to be removed.

Chapter XIII - The Trusteeship Council

This states the make-up and procedure of the now defunct Council. This Chapter will also be removed next time the Charter is amended.

Chapter XIV - The International Court of Justice

Article 92 - 'The International Court of Justice shall be the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. It shall function in accordance with the annexed Statute, which is based upon the Statute of the Permanent Court of International Justice and forms an integral part of the present Charter.' - The ICJ should be viewed as a 'country vs country' court. It serves a couple of purposes today. The UN can use it to provide legal opinions on various matters; many treaties set the ICJ as the body which arbitrates disagreements concerning them; and finally countries disagreeing over a facet of international law can go to the ICJ about it for arbitration.

Article 94 - 'Each Member of the United Nations undertakes to comply with the decision of the International Court of Justice in any case to which it is a party. If any party to a case fails to perform the obligations incumbent upon it under a judgement rendered by the Court, the other party may have recourse to the Security Council, which may, if it deems necessary, make recommendations or decide upon measures to be taken to give effect to the judgement'.

Two things should be noted above. One is that in theory any State is bound to the ruling, whether or not it wants to be. The other is that a State can appeal to the Security Council to have them enforce an ICJ judgement. Two problems arise:

  1. The ICJ judges it too much trouble to chase countries around to follow up judgements. As such it requires both parties (or however many parties) to codify in their law that they will accept the ruling before they progress on the case.

  2. The Security Council has to vote on any enforcement action. This means that if a Permanent Member is refusing to obey, there is no way to compel action8.

Chapter XV - The Secretariat

Article 97 - 'The Secretariat shall comprise a Secretary-General and such staff as the Organization may require. The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. He shall be the chief administrative officer of the Organization'. The requirement for Security Council approval means that all Permanent Members must at least tolerate a Secretary-General candidate. The election also requires a two-thirds vote. This means literally dozens of rounds of voting can take place before one is selected. Note that he (hopefully we shall gain a female Secretary-General soon) is just the Chief Administrative Officer - he is responsible for the smooth running of the organisation, not changes in the structure. This relative powerlessness is why no former head of government has ever sought the role.

Article 100 - 'In the performance of their duties the Secretary-General and the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organization'. - The Secretariat is supposed to be as separate as possible. This is promoted in several ways. One is that those working for UN bodies are deliberately hired on a very widespread geographic basis. The other is that the Secretary-General and his deputies become Stateless during their tenure, so that their homeland cannot place any official pull on them.

Chapter XVI - Miscellaneous Provisions

Article 102 - 'Every treaty and every international agreement entered into by any Member of the United Nations after the present Charter comes into force shall as soon as possible be registered with the Secretariat and published by it'. - In effect this means no secret treaties. It is extremely likely that this was put in place specifically because of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, a secret pact between Germany and the USSR agreeing to split Poland in 1939.

Article 103 - 'In the event of a conflict between the obligations of the Members of the United Nations under the present Charter and their obligations under any other international agreement, their obligations under the present Charter shall prevail'. - By signing the UN Charter every Member State, in theory, accepts that the Charter takes precedence over every single other agreement made by a nation.

Article 105 - This article sets out that the Organization (as the bodies that make up the UN are referred to) and those working for it automatically have the standing to function in whatever country they are. This could mean the right to own land in their region but it more usually means that they have the the diplomatic immunity necessary to function - senior UN officials have the same diplomatic immunity that diplomats possess and the same applies to UN property9.

Chapter XVII - Transitional Security Arrangements

In the short interim between the signing of the Charter and the creation of the UN as a body, this Chapter authorised the soon to be Permanent Members to act in the event of international security issues. Since World War II hadn't quite been fully concluded at this point this was rather crucial. Presumably, like the chapters referring to the Trusteeship system, this shall be removed next time the Charter is amended.

Chapter XVIII - Amendments

Article 108 - An amendment comes into force in the event of a two-thirds vote in the General Assembly and two-thirds of the Member States have passed it in their national parliaments (or equivalent). The five Permanent States must agree, not simply abstain on the matter.

Chapter XIX - Ratification

In this Chapter it is set out that the USA and the Secretary-General will hold the ratified Charters of each State. It also stated when the Charter would come into force.

Various Amendments

Only a few amendments have been made to the Charter in the 70 years, all reasonably minor - they have generally just altered the make-up of the councils (usually increasing their size as the UN grew).

Congratulations! You have now read the summary of one of the most important treaties, if not the most important treaty, in the world. Whatever your views on the UN, it is ever-known, with its name cropping up in reports of any new conflict or natural disaster, and this is the treaty that brought a fully fledged organisation into being. These days the UN represents seven billion humans, something no other document can claim to have achieved.

Now, whether you think the contents of the Charter are worthwhile and effective, or not worth the paper it was written on, that's fine - everything about the United Nations' effectiveness and worthiness, including the Charter, can be (and indeed is) up for argument.

Your Interesting Fact!

Proof that at least one person thinks it's important - when the newly signed UN Charter was to be flown from San Francisco to be stored in Washington it was done so by a rather small military plane. The Charter was carried by a diplomat who would become the first ever Secretary-General. However the rather small military plane in question only had one parachute. It was decided the diplomat could take his chances - the parachute was fitted to the Charter.

1The term 'all 193 countries' is used, since many States use membership in the UN as proof of a country's sovereignty, although the UN does not recognise Taiwan, for example, unlike many people.2That is, it seeks to prevent every war, but especially seeks to prevent a repeat of World War II.3The addition of which emphasised the Western nations over the East, as three Western and only two Eastern countries would be permanently on the Security Council.4Unsurprisingly, the Big Four and France.5Despite being designated as one of these, Poland had only just been liberated and couldn't attend as it formed a new government. However, a space for its signature was left and it is classified as a founder member. Thus it can be argued whether there were 50 or 51 founding members.6As the successor nation of the USSR.7As the successor to the Republic of China, which Taiwan disputes, claiming that they remain the Republic of China.8The USA has ignored a ruling in the past with no way to demand acceptance.9This has caused some problems for a resident of one country, working for the UN, and being in another country - deciding the obligations for each have proven tickly.

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