Understanding the Charter of the United Nations

The Charter of the United Nations (also known as the UN Charter) of 1945 is the foundational treaty of the United Nations, an intergovernmental organisation. The Charter of the United Nations was signed on June 26, 1945, in San Francisco, at the conclusion of the United Nations Conference on International Organization, and came into force on October 24, 1945. The Statute of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is an integral part of the Charter.

History of the Charter of the United Nations

Amendments to Articles 23, 27 and 61 of the Charter were adopted by the General Assembly on December 17, 1963 and came into force on August 31, 1965. A further amendment to Article 61 was adopted by the General Assembly on December 20, 1971, and came into force on September 24, 1973. An amendment to Article 109, adopted by the General Assembly on December 20, 1965, came into force on June 12, 1968.

The amendment to Article 23 enlarges the membership of the Security Council from eleven to fifteen. The amended Article 27 provides that decisions of the Security Council on procedural matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members (formerly seven) and on all other matters by an affirmative vote of nine members (formerly seven), including the concurring votes of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

The amendment to Article 61, which entered into force on August 31, 1965, enlarged the membership of the Economic and Social Council from eighteen to twenty-seven. The subsequent amendment to that Article, which entered into force on September 24, 1973, further increased the membership of the Council from twenty-seven to fifty-four.

The amendment to Article 109, which relates to the first paragraph of that Article, provides that a General Conference of Member States for the purpose of reviewing the Charter may be held at a date and place to be fixed by a two-thirds vote of the members of the General Assembly and by a vote of any nine members (formerly seven) of the Security Council.

Paragraph 3 of Article 109, which deals with the consideration of a possible review conference during the tenth regular session of the General Assembly, has been retained in its original form in its reference to a “vote, of any seven members of the Security Council”, the paragraph having been acted upon in 1955 by the General Assembly, at its tenth regular session, and by the Security Council.

The Charter of the United Nations

The United Nations Charter articulated a commitment to uphold human rights of citizens and outlined a broad set of principles relating to achieving “higher standards of living”, addressing “economic, social, health, and related problems”, and “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. As a Charter, it is a constituent treaty, and all members are bound by its articles. Furthermore, Article 103 of the Charter states that obligations to the United Nations prevail over all other treaty obligations.

The Charter consists of a Preamble and a series of articles grouped into chapters. The Preamble consists of two principal parts. The first part contains a general call for the maintenance of peace and international security, and respect for human rights. The second part of the Preamble is a declaration in a contractual style that the governments of the peoples of the United Nations have agreed to the Charter and it is the first international document regarding human rights.

Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations states that “The Purposes of the United Nations are:

  1. To maintain international peace and security, 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, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;
  2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;
  3. To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and
  4. To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends”.

Chapter I the Charter of the United Nations sets forth the purposes of the United Nations, including the important provisions of the maintenance of international peace and security. Chapter II of the Charter of the United Nations defines the criteria for membership in the United Nations. Chapters III – XV of the Charter of the United Nations, the bulk of the document, describe the organs and institutions of the UN and their respective powers. Chapters XVI and Chapter XVII of the Charter of the United Nations describe arrangements for integrating the UN with established international law. Chapters XVIII and Chapter XIX of the Charter of the United Nations provide for amendment and ratification of the Charter.

Chapter VI describes the Security Council’s power to investigate and mediate disputes. Chapter VII describes the Security Council’s power to authorise economic, diplomatic, and military sanctions, as well as the use of military force, to resolve disputes. Chapter VIII makes it possible for regional arrangements to maintain peace and security within their own region. Chapters IX and Chapter X describe the UN’s powers for economic and social cooperation, and the Economic and Social Council that oversees these powers.

Chapters XII and Chapter XIII describe the Trusteeship Council, which oversaw decolonisation. Chapters XIV and Chapter XV establish the powers of, respectively, the International Court of Justice and the United Nations Secretariat. Chapters XVI through Chapter XIX deal respectively with XVI: miscellaneous provisions, XVII: transitional security arrangements related to World War II, XVIII: the Charter amendment process, and XIX: ratification of the Charter.

Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations

Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations sets out the UN Security Council’s powers to maintain peace. It allows the Council to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” and to take military and non-military action to “restore international peace and security”.

Chapter VII also gives the Military Staff Committee responsibility for strategic coordination of forces placed at the disposal of the UN Security Council. It is made up of the chiefs of staff of the five permanent members of the Council.

The UN Charter’s prohibition of member states of the UN attacking other UN member states is central to the purpose for which the UN was founded in the wake of the destruction of World War II: to prevent war. This overriding concern is also reflected in the Nuremberg Trials’ concept of a crime against peace “starting or waging a war against the territorial integrity, political independence or sovereignty of a state, or in violation of international treaties or agreements” (crime against peace), which was held to be the crime that makes all war crimes possible.