The United Nations at 70


Amb. Sergio Duarte – TRANSCEND Media Service

un united nations logo onuSeventy years ago, on October 24 1945, the Charter of the United Nations entered into force. It had been signed on June 26 by the 51 original members that participated in the final negotiating phase in San Francisco. The world organization has now 193 member States, encompassing the entire community of nations.

The Preamble of the Charter sets out the lofty ideals on which the United Nations was founded. It states the determination of its peoples to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, to establish conditions under which justice and respect for international law can be maintained and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, and goes on to define the ways in which these ideals could be accomplished: living together in peace, uniting strength to maintain international peace and security, ensuring that the armed force shall not be used save in the common interest and promoting the economic and social advancement of all peoples.

It is hard to envisage what the world today would look like if the United Nations did not exist. From a society conceived by the victors of a bloody conflict in a world that was beginning to heal from its wounds it evolved into an eclectic international organization, fully involved in every aspect of human life and endeavor. The promotion of justice and social and economic advancement for all peoples and the maintenance of peace and security are problems of a global nature that can only be dealt with through cooperation in a truly multilateral spirit. No country, however powerful, can achieve success in tackling individually such issues.

In 2001 a summit meeting convened by the United Nations set eight objectives that became known as the “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs), ranging from reducing extreme poverty by one half to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, to be attained by the year 2015. At the start of the 2015 Session of the General Assembly heads of State and Government met again at the United Nations to assess progress made. In the words of Secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, concerted efforts over the previous fifteen years had enabled people across the world to improve their lives and their future prospects. The MDGs helped to lift more than one billion people out of extreme poverty, to make inroads against hunger, to enable more girls to attend school than ever before and to protect our planet. They generated new and innovative partnerships, galvanized public opinion and showed the immense value of setting ambitious goals.

The Secretary-general went on to recognize that inequalities persisted and that progress had been uneven. Seventeen “Sustainable Development Goals” to be achieved by 2030 were adopted as an ambitious follow-up to the MDGs. Such goals are, in a nutshell: to end poverty and hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture; to ensure healthy lives and well-being for all; to ensure inclusive opportunities and equitable quality education; to achieve gender equality; to ensure water and sanitation for all; to ensure access to energy for all; to promote sustained economic growth and decent work for all; to promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization; to reduce inequality within and among countries; to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable; to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns; to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts; to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources; to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems; to promote peaceful and inclusive societies and provide access to justice for all; and finally, to strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

The unanimous adoption of the new targets provides ample evidence that Member States of the United Nations understand the need for concerted efforts and continuing cooperation in order to ensure progress on social and economic development. A similar understanding of the value of cooperation and recognition of the legitimate interests and concerns of all its Members and of all peoples is needed to deal successfully with the problems related to the maintenance of international peace and security, where meaningful and lasting progress has eluded the world organization.

Both the United Nations and the atom bomb have now turned seventy: less than one month after the signature of the Charter the world was shaken by the advent of the most terrible weapon human ingenuity has ever devised. The first experimental detonation of an atomic explosive device on July 16 and its use on August 6 and 9 1945 marked the start of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and heralded a period of rivalry and confrontation that threatened to end human life and civilization at the push of a button. Several decades went by before the wide majority of nations agreed on observing a number of legally binding arrangements not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for assurances that steps would be taken to achieve nuclear disarmament. Nevertheless, the few States that still possess such awesome means of destruction continue to affirm their intention to maintain indefinitely, modernize and eventually use such weapons, even against those that have committed to not develop similar capabilities. Moreover, they show little willingness to enter into legally binding multilateral agreements to eliminate their arsenals within specific timelines.

Seventy years ago the Charter established a Trusteeship Council, an Economic and Social Council and a Security Council, respectively charged with primary responsibility for guiding the process of decolonization, promoting economic and social development and maintaining international peace and security. The Trusteeship Council suspended its operation in 1994 with the independence of the last remaining United Nations trust territory and now only meets as required. The egalitarian, fifty-four-member Economic and Social Council and a number of specialized agencies and associated organs and funds continue to work diligently toward the realization of the promise of advancement contained in the Charter.

The maintenance of peace and security, however, lag behind. The absence of military strife between and among the major powers since 1945 does not obscure the hundreds of regional and local conflicts that have erupted and continue to erupt in other areas, particularly in the Middle East and in Africa. The rise of extremist terrorism brought new and unprecedented challenges to the world organization.

In 1965, the Security Council was enlarged from its original 11 members, including five permanent ones, to the present 15. Since then, no significant change was introduced to this organ whose composition and functioning still reflects the political configuration of the world in 1945. Inertia and regional rivalries have delayed a reform that would make it more representative and provide wider access to the multilateral decision-making process.

Its shortcomings and flaws notwithstanding, the United Nations is undoubtedly a landmark achievement in an imperfect world. Its endurance, authority and strength at the respectable age of seventy underscore its significance not only for the welfare of peoples and the improvement of living conditions everywhere but also for the improvement of relationships among nations. The United Nations represents the best chance of humankind to achieve a prosperous, sustainable, just and safe world for all. It is the duty of the entire international community to do the utmost in order to make true the lofty ideals under which it was founded.


​Sergio Duarte – Brazilian Ambassador (ret.) United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affairs (2007-2012); President of the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (2005); Chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors (1999-2000).

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 19 Oct 2015.

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