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The 24th October marks UN Day, 72 years since the first countries entered the UN Charter. In that time, the UN has seen some amazing events: world leaders prosecuted for heinous war crimes, huge steps taken to cut world famine, and a unilateral focus on peace across all nations. Although there’s plenty of news about the successes, failures and rhetoric inside the General Assembly, the latest edition of International Explainers will look at the less well-known UN Charter.
Why was the Charter established, and how did the nations go about creating it?
Coming after the world’s bloodiest war, 51 nations sought to make sure such an event would never happen again. Their aim was to form the UN, and their method was to form a charter to which all members adhere.
The work needed to set up such a large organisation led the 51 member states to split the charter into 4 commissions. Delegates in charge of Commission One were tasked with forming the general purpose of the UN, Two to consider the responsibility of the General Assembly, Three for the Security Council and finally, Four to lay the foundations for the International Court of Justice.
The first article in the charter, what we typically think of the UN as, refers to maintaining international peace and security, while also developing ties between countries. These two points form the bedrock of what the UN stands for: Peace and Cooperation. We can still see this today, with many UN member countries uniting together to inflict potentially devastating economic sanctions on North Korea with the aim of ensuring peace.
What are the ‘pitfalls’ of the Charter?
The charter has faced lots of controversy into how it was written and the distribution of power in the Security Council. The most notorious sticking point of the Charter is the right given to the ‘Big Five’(UK, USA, Russia, China and France) to exercise a veto on action in the Security Council.
In effect, when one of the Big Five challenged world peace, they could remove the power of the Council to act. Famously, this has occurred in the cases of the 1989 US veto of a draft condemning its own invasion of Panama, and more recently, the Russian veto over UN sanctions of Syria and its worrying chemical weapons record.
Amnesty International have even gone as far as saying the ‘Big Five’ use the Veto to:
Promote their political self-interest or geopolitical interest above the interest of protecting civilians.
Does the Charter allow for expulsion?
Over the past seven decades there inevitably have been occasions where a country has not abided by the Charter and as a result has faced calls to be suspended from the General Assembly and the benefits of being a member of the UN retracted. South Africa was suspended from contributing to work in the General Assembly, during the 1970s due to its violation of the UN charter because of its infamous Apartheid policies.
In practice, the UN prefers keeping all members at the negotiating table, so would use all avenues before considering expulsion. This is why North Korea is still a member state of the UN despite its questionable human rights record, and more recent its nuclear armament. Instead the UN imposes non-military force on the country, in the form of sanctions and restrictions to force the country’s hand, into dropping its UN conflicting acts.
Are the member states unified in support of the Charter?
The UN Charter is certainly no polished article, with plenty of room for improvement. There are many dividing calls for it to shape the UN to become a bigger force in global politics, carry out huge reforms in power distribution, and its focus to improve the world. It has largely been said that the UN is split into developing countries, who want the UN Charter to further empower the Assembly economically, while the advanced economies are after a more security-focused organisation.
There is much discussion on how significant a part the UN has played on the global peace picture. However, based on statistics from the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), ‘battle deaths’ have followed a decreasing trend over the past seventy years and fewer people died in the past ten years than during any ten-year average since World War II.
Surely, we can give the UN credit for this, and mark UN day by contemplating the more peaceful world we are now in due to its foundation seventy-two years ago.