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Highlights of UN History

Sep. 30, 2015

The UN started with 51 member nations after the end of World War Two in 1945. It faced the challenge of reuniting a world divided by conflict. With 193 members today, it is the biggest international organization in the world.

Most people associate the United Nations with New York, where the Headquarters is based. However, the organization actually started in San Francisco, where diplomats from around the world gathered in the aftermath of the war in search of hope.

Pablo Castro, President of the San Francisco chapter of the UN Association, explains that the War Memorial Veterans Building in the city hosted the conference of international organizations between April 26 and June 26, 1945. 3,500 delegates and other officials joined marathon negotiations on the UN Charter. 2,500 journalists covered what was at the time the biggest international conference in history. "The hope was there," Pablo Castro says. "Everyone who came had hopes of avoiding the scourge of the war."

Clashes among the delegates threatened the talks. The most contentious issue was whether to give a limited number of countries the power to veto Security Council resolutions.

The council is currently made up of 5 permanent members: the US, the UK, Russia, China and France. There are also 10 non-permanent members that rotate every two years. At the time, the big powers thought they deserved to lead the postwar world, but smaller nations called it an unfair privilege. "There was the section of the world that wanted to do things very democratically," Pablo Castro says. "Others have the idea that humans need to be led with authority. There was a notion that countries that were not so developed didn't have the necessary experience, authority, expertise, or economic power."

During the negotiations in 1945, Ellen Newman got a firsthand look at history in the making. Now 87, she was at the time a high school student who excelled in Spanish studies, which led to her volunteering as a translator at the conference. "I, frankly, was too young to imagine anything like that," she recalls today. "But I came to know as I sat there, they were drafting a product for peace, and that gave me so much hope at the time. I was not only excited. I was breathless." Newman felt that the delegates were having a tough time with the negotiations. "The atmosphere was serious and people were concentrating," she recalls.

After two months of tough negotiations, the delegates finally gathered on June 26, 1945 to sign the United Nations Charter. Major countries got their way and obtained veto power in the Security Council. The charter came into effect that October.

Its preamble declares that “people of the United Nations are determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." 70 years have passed, and wars continue to spread death and destruction throughout the world. The UN has grown in its size and scope. Critics say the organization is inefficient and bureaucratic.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited San Francisco this June to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding. "In signing the United Nations charter, the founders achieved what many thought impossible," he reflected. "The United Nations is the hope and home of all humankind. The Charter is our compass. Let us never relent on the journey to a better world for we the people."

Ban knows there's a long way to go before world peace can become a reality.


The number of UN member countries has increased nearly fourfold since its founding. Japan joined in 1956, and cooperation with the UN has become a cornerstone of Japanese diplomacy. However, it is an evolving relationship.

Then-foreign minister Mamoru Shigemitsu marked Japan's induction by remarking "Japan may well be regarded as a bridge between the East and the West."

Shigemitsu continued his historic speech, saying "we believe that no nation is responsible to itself alone, but that the laws of political morality are universal...It is our earnest hope that the United Nations will always command the widest possible power consonant with its mission as an instrument of world peace." Shigemitsu's speech set the course for Japanese foreign policy in the postwar era.

Yukio Takasu, UN Under-Secretary-General for management, learned about Shigemitsu's speech when he was studying to be a diplomat. "It was a condoning of the Japanese people’s hope that war would be over," Takasu says. "We don’t want to go war anymore, and dedicate ourselves entirely to global peace. I thought this was a very idealistic speech and was identifying the UN as Japan’s future course."

The UN is one of the two pillars of Japanese diplomacy, along with the alliance with the US. As Japan's economy grew, so did its financial support for the UN and by 2000, Tokyo was contributing 20 percent of the organization's annual budget.

Japan's relationship with the UN was tested after the UN brokered a peace agreement in 1991 to end 20 years of civil war in Cambodia. The UN asked Japan to dispatch Self Defense Forces personnel to a peacekeeping operation, or PKO, sparking a huge political controversy in Japan. Japan hadn't sent forces abroad since World War Two, and the government tried to pass a law to allow SDF members to join the mission.

"There is very strong support for pacifism in Japan," Takasu says. "Nobody wants to get involved in conflicts and settle them by military means. Participation in the PKO may open the door to that. Secondly, the nature of the PKO was not well understood and is very different from enforcement. Laws don't allow Japan to participate in this so-called enforcement against an aggressor. The use of the force and weapons is strictly regulated. It took a long time to create conditions allowing Japan to participate in PKO."

In June, 1992, the Diet passed a law approving the participation in the mission, despite fierce opposition. Japan sent 1,200 SDF members to Cambodia, where they monitored the ceasefire and repaired infrastructure like bridges and roads. Takasu says "I think everyone agreed in Japan, despite of the all the initial reluctance, the experience in Cambodia opened up a new possibility for Japan to participate in international peace, although within the framework of the UN.”

Sukehiro Hasegawa, Former Special Representative of UN Secretary-General, has served in various UN peacekeeping operations including one in East Timor. He calls the moment the Japanese government decided to send Self Defense Force to Cambodia "a turning point." He believes Japan should support UN peacekeeping efforts both through the SDF and civilian initiatives. He says "I hope that Japan will be continue to be guided by its own aspiration to attain an honored place in the international community, as Shigemitsu mentioned in 1956. I think we should keep that pledge and dream through continued engagement with the UN."

Japan, along with Germany, India and the African Union, wants the UN to increase the number of permanent members of the Security Council. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in his address to the General Assembly, "Japan is determined to undertake Security Council reform in order to transform the United Nations into a body appropriate for the 21st century, and then, as a permanent member of the Security Council, carry out its responsibilities in making still greater contributions towards world peace and prosperity."

Takasu says it's high time Japan joined the major powers at the table. "Does the composition of the Security Council now represent the global community?" he asks. "With 5 permanent members and 10 non-permanent members, the answer clearly is no. Changes, particularly in the permanent membership, would be extremely difficult. It has been discussed for 20 years. It won't be easy, but I think it’s a historic inevitability."