Preamble section 5:
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Concepts and Ideas

  1. History and Origins of the United Nations
  2. Founding of the Charter

History and Origins of the United Nations

The trauma of the Second World War shook the world to its very foundations. Never before in human history had a military conflict resulted in so many million deaths, such massive devastation, or such global upheaval. For the first time in modern history, more civilians lost their lives than did combatants. For this reason, participants often described World War II as a "people's war" that consumed not only military commanders and those in uniform but everyone caught in its inferno, demanding service, sacrifice, exposure, and sometimes life itself. (Lauren, 139)

The name "United Nations" was coined by Roosevelt in 1941 to describe the countries fighting against the Nazis. It was first used officially on Jan. 1, 1942, when 26 states joined in the Declaration by the United Nations, pledging themselves to continue their joint war effort and not to make peace separately. The Declaration of the United Nations referred specifically to human rights, and with Wilsonian idealism in the ascendancy, Roosevelt decided to raise the matter of a United Nations Organization with Stalin. At first Stalin resisted, but a compromise was worked out: the great powers retained a veto in the Security Council and the western leaders agreed to support the admission of two or three constituent Soviet republics. The call for an international organization to replace the League of Nations was thus officially initiated on October 30, 1943, in the Moscow Declaration issued by China, Great Britain, the United States, and the USSR.

The founding of the UN was thus inextricably bound up in the war aims of the Allied powers. In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Roosevelt issued his famous call for a future founded upon four essential freedoms thus making the protection of human rights part of the conditions for peace at the end of the war. Later in 1941, the National Catholic Welfare Conference sent Eleanor Roosevelt a letter asking her to lobby for human rights. In August, about the time the Atlantic Charter was signed, a conference on human rights was held in Buenos Aires; in his June 1 radio message, the Pope too pleaded for an international bill of human rights.

The Issue of Sovereignty

The many proposals and visions of international human rights generated during the course of World War II presented the Allied governments with an unanticipated and serious dilemma. On the one hand, the vision of a future based on four essential freedoms helped to make a dramatic and positive distinction between the Allies and their wartime adversaries; to establish the purposes for which the war was being fought; and to provide principles that would galvanize their citizens around a universal crusade. At the same time, such ideas created a troublesome mirror that would reflect their own abuses of human rights, raising dangerous expectations that might not be met, and potentially threatening their own power and claims of national sovereignty. It did not take long for governments, especially as they began to make plans for the postwar world, to confront this dilemma between international human rights and national sovereignty, and to recognize the profound difficulty of trying to have it both ways. (Lauren, 159-60)

Dumbarton Oaks

At the Dumbarton Oaks Conference (August-October 1944) China, Great Britain, the United States, and the USSR drafted specific proposals for a charter for the new international organization. The representatives of the Great Powers who drafted the charter for the United Nations at Dumbarton Oaks had little appreciation for the vision of human rights generated during the war. They came to realize sooner than they anticipated, however, that crusades once unleashed are not easily reined in. Expectations had been raised, promises made, and proposals issued during the "people's war" that were not about to be denied. Countless men and women, including those among minority groups, smaller nations, and colonial people, had been led to believe that their personal sacrifices in the war and their witness to genocide would bring recognizable results in the world. Advocates for international human rights thus reacted with immediate shock, resentment, and anger when they read the proposals of the Great Powers that contained all the old provisos about national sovereignty and almost nothing about human rights. Sumner Welles responded by suggesting that there would be no "signing on the dotted line by nations that have not yet been given a chance to take part in conferences and who may not be willing to accept the general lines in the proposal of Dumbarton Oaks." This is just what happened, and those states which had been excluded up to this point now determined that they would not remain passive in the face of Great Power opposition, or silent on the subject of human rights, as the time approached for a more broadly based international conference designed to create a new peace. (Lauren, 171)

San Francisco Conference

By the spring of 1945 the end of the war was in sight, and it thus became vital for those engaged in this monumental struggle finally to gather together and negotiate a plan acceptable to all for an international organization to keep the peace. "This time we shall not make the mistake of waiting … to set up a machinery of peace," said Roosevelt pointing to recent history. "This time, as we fight together to get the war over quickly, we must work together to keep it from happening again .… We shall have to take the responsibility for world collaboration, or we shall bear the responsibility of another world conflict" (Lauren, 184). All the states that had adhered to the 1942 Declaration and had declared war on Germany or Japan by March 1, 1945 were thus called to the founding conference to be held in San Francisco from April 25 to June 26, 1945.

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Peter Danchin, Columbia University