United Nations Charter Convention Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The birth of the United Nations established a global international organization for conflict resolution and maintenance of world peace originally attempted after World War I with the League of Nations.

Summary of Event

On January 1, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Maksim Maksimovich Litvinov Litvinov, Maksim Maksimovich (Russian ambassador to the United States), and representatives of twenty-three other nations signed the Declaration of the United Nations Declaration of the United Nations (1942) , pledging themselves to a continued alliance in the struggle against the Axis and to uphold the principles enunciated in the Atlantic Charter. This latter document was a joint statement made by Roosevelt and Churchill on August 14, 1941, that spoke of the need to establish a permanent organization for collective security. Eventually, this commitment to permanent collective security led to the establishment of the United Nations on June 26, 1945, in San Francisco, as a successor to the League of Nations, which had rested on similar principles but had failed to achieve consensus from all the Great Powers. United Nations;charter convention [kw]United Nations Charter Convention (Apr. 25-June 26, 1945) [kw]Charter Convention, United Nations (Apr. 25-June 26, 1945) [kw]Convention, United Nations Charter (Apr. 25-June 26, 1945) United Nations;charter convention [g]North America;Apr. 25-June 26, 1945: United Nations Charter Convention[01470] [g]United States;Apr. 25-June 26, 1945: United Nations Charter Convention[01470] [c]United Nations;Apr. 25-June 26, 1945: United Nations Charter Convention[01470] [c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 25-June 26, 1945: United Nations Charter Convention[01470] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Apr. 25-June 26, 1945: United Nations Charter Convention[01470] Churchill, Winston [p]Churchill, Winston;United Nations Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;United Nations Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;United Nations Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;United Nations Stettinius, Edward Reilly, Jr. Connally, Tom Vandenberg, Arthur Hendrick Molotov, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Hull, Cordell

Throughout the evolution of the United Nations, initiative came from the Western powers, particularly the United States. From its inception, the United Nations was a Western idea, but the United States believed that Soviet participation was essential to its success. It was not until the October, 1943, Moscow Declaration Moscow Declaration (1943) , however, that the Soviet Union made a firm commitment to establish a general international organization. In August, 1944, the Big Four—the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and Great Britain—at last met to discuss the actual structure of the postwar security organization. At the invitation of President Roosevelt, the delegates assembled at a suburban Washington, D.C., estate, Dumbarton Oaks Dumbarton Oaks Conference (1944) , to review proposals.

By October 7, the conferees at Dumbarton Oaks had reached agreement on a number of vital points. There were a number of outstanding problems after the convention adjourned, however, the most notable of which was a disagreement between the United States and the Soviet Union over the functioning of veto power in the new organization. The Soviet Union insisted that each Big Four country be permitted an absolute veto over issues in which they were involved. Roosevelt appealed directly to Joseph Stalin in the hope of modifying this position but without success. The president decided to accept the progress that had been made and reserve a final decision on the veto question until after he had an opportunity to discuss the matter with the Soviet leader in person.

The next major diplomatic conference between the major powers was at Yalta in February, 1945. On paper, Roosevelt had every reason to feel that he had achieved his goal after the conclusion of the Yalta Conference Yalta Conference (1945) . Although concerned with many different topics of far-reaching implications, the Yalta meeting of Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill did produce a temporary accord on the United Nations veto question. Stalin accepted the U.S. proposition that those issues that were defined as procedural could not be vetoed by any member of the organization; such issues would instead require a majority vote of the Security Council. It was further agreed that in certain cases a disputant to an issue—even one of the Big Four—must abstain from voting. Finally, it was decided that all nations that declared war on the Axis by March 1, 1945, would be considered charter members of the United Nations.

The United Nations headquarters building in New York City.

(Christopher Walker/Dreamstime.com)

At the invitation of the Big Four, forty-six other nations assembled in San Francisco on April 25, 1945, to establish the United Nations. President Roosevelt had chosen the U.S. delegation with great care. Recalling the unfortunate experiences of Woodrow Wilson and the Paris convention, Roosevelt picked a bipartisan delegation. At the head of the group was Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., newly appointed secretary of state. He was joined by a number of other delegates, the most notable of whom were Senator Arthur Hendrick Vandenberg, a Michigan Republican who had moved from an isolationist position to one of full support of the president, and Senator Tom Connally, a Texas Democrat who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The president did not live to see the convention open: He died of a stroke on April 12, 1945, only two months before World War II ended.

Harry S. Truman, Roosevelt’s successor, was firmly committed to the same sort of program Roosevelt had supported, and he endorsed the delegation. At the convention, the U.S. representatives immediately became bogged down in a number of disputes. Russia already was creating tensions within the Allied coalition by its supposed intransigence regarding Poland. It was only at Truman’s insistence that Stalin, who viewed the entire San Francisco affair as a Western production, permitted Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, to attend the convention in place of a lower-ranking official. In San Francisco, the United States and Russia again disagreed over voting procedure. Seeking to revoke the decision made at Yalta, Molotov now insisted that each Great Power be granted the veto over any attempt by the Security Council to discuss an issue. Truman appealed to Stalin personally and finally was able to persuade him that a decision to discuss an issue was a procedural question and therefore not subject to a simple veto.

On another issue, however, the United States found itself in complete agreement with the Soviet Union. As conceived by the Big Four in pre-San Francisco meetings, the United Nations was to operate through the domination of the five major powers, which now included France. It was agreed by all major powers that only unanimity among themselves could keep the peace. This agreement, however, met stiff resistance from the smaller powers, both before and during the U.N. Conference at San Francisco. Latin American representatives met at Mexico City in early 1945 and called for a more powerful general assembly and an international court, and they insisted on a greater role for regional organizations in the maintenance of peace. Small powers expressed resentment at San Francisco concerning the veto provisions insisted upon by the major powers, but the latter held firmly to their dominant role in the Security Council.

On a host of other points, concessions were made to the smaller powers that resulted in a strengthening of provisions for regional collective security in cooperation with the Security Council and in the elaboration of an extensive set of articles dealing with decolonization and trusteeship arrangements for non-self-governing territories. The Dumbarton Oaks proposals developed by the Great Powers had been largely silent on these issues, so the details of these initiatives had to be sketched out at San Francisco. The result was a U.N. structure with six major organs instead of the four anticipated at Dumbarton Oaks. To the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Secretariat, and the International Court of Justice were added the Economic and Social Council Economic and Social Council, U.N. (ECOSOC) and the Trusteeship Council Trusteeship Council, U.N. .

While the Security Council Security Council, U.N. was created to deal with the major U.N. goal of maintaining global peace and security and punishing acts of aggression under chapters 6 and 7 of the charter, the General Assembly General Assembly, U.N. was granted even broader authority not only to discuss peace and security matters (although it could make no recommendations on such matters while the Security Council was engaged in deliberations concerning them) but also to coordinate U.N. efforts to eliminate the underlying causes of conflict. ECOSOC and the Trusteeship Council, as well as mechanisms established to promote decolonization under General Assembly oversight, were established to address these underlying causes of conflict, which were attributed to the lack of self-determination, poverty, violations of human rights, and other social pathologies. The General Assembly, unlike the Security Council, was open to all member states, with equal voting rights for each state. The General Assembly could make recommendations only with regard to areas under its purview, while the Security Council could bind U.N. members under the provisions of chapter 7 for enforcement of international peace and security.

The United Nations Charter was signed on June 26, 1945. By October 24, the five permanent members of the Security Council and a majority of the other charter member-nations had ratified the charter, and on that day, the United Nations officially came into existence.

Significance

Almost immediately after the creation of the United Nations, the Cold War deepened and the Allied consensus Roosevelt had hoped would furnish the basis for effective global management of conflict evaporated. Security Council action was often frustrated by the threat or use of the veto. Apart from the Korean War—during which the Soviet Union was boycotting Security Council sessions, thus enabling the latter to deploy forces to resist North Korean aggression—the Security Council was unable to invoke its collective enforcement powers. This led to the development of roles for the General Assembly and the Secretariat in pursuing peacekeeping initiatives that the Security Council itself eventually adopted, short of using economic sanctions or military force. Over time, with the development of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF; later the United Nations Children’s Fund), the organization became associated more with philanthropic endeavors than with the maintenance of peace or the enforcement of social justice, goals in the pursuit of which it tended to be relatively powerless. United Nations;charter convention

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bennett, A. LeRoy. International Organizations: Principles and Issues. 6th ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1995. A comprehensive treatment of the origins, genesis, and historical development of the United Nations in the context of wider developments in international organization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Claude, Inis L., Jr. Swords into Plowshares: The Problem and Progress of International Organization. 3d rev. ed. New York: Random House, 1964. A standard history of the early development of the United Nations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodrich, Leland M., Edvard Hambro, and Anne P. Simons. Charter of the United Nations: Commentary and Documents. 3d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. Although dated, an invaluable, article-by-article analysis of the actual practice of the United Nations in its first two decades of implementing charter provisions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Roy S., ed. Swords into Plowshares: Building Peace Through the United Nations. Boston: Nijhoff, 2006. Anthology of essays evaluating the United Nations’ history and progress from the point of view of the early twenty-first century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mingst, Karen A., and Margaret P. Karns. The United Nations in the Post-Cold War Era. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995. Traces the development of the United Nations and its prospects for renewed activity in global peacekeeping and economic development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    The United Nations Conference on International Organization, San Francisco, California, April 25 to June 26, 1945. Selected Documents. U.S. Department of State Conference Series 83. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1946. Contains a wealth of documents, reports, verbatim records, and summaries of meetings leading up to and including the U.N. Conference in San Francisco.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weiss, Thomas, David P. Forsythe, and Roger A. Coate. The United Nations and Changing World Politics. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994. Examines the theory of collective security and its applicability to U.N. efforts at peacekeeping and the protection of human rights in the late twentieth century.

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