For We, The Peoples...

Photo of Dag Hammarskjöld ©UN Photo/JO

In October 2015, the United Nations commemorates its 70th anniversary, and on this occasion it is appropriate to consider the relevance of the founding document, the Charter of the United Nations. The United Nations has evolved with a changing world and it is up to Member States to keep strengthening the capabilities of the Organization and recommit to the purposes and principles of the Charter. The visions and values articulated by the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, are still relevant for this purpose.

The Charter is a brave declaration, exceptional in content and aspiration, and its purposes and principles remain relevant in addressing today’s complex global challenges. In his Introduction to the Annual Report presented to the United Nations General Assembly on 17 August 1961, less than five weeks before his tragic death, Hammarskjöld summarized the document’s relevance in the following way: “[I]n the Preamble to the Charter it is stated to be a principle and purpose of the Organization ‘to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained.’ In these words…it gives expression to another basic democratic principle, that of the rule of law.”1

While the Charter is unique, it has not been applied even-handedly to its full potential and meaning by the Member States. The 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations provides an important opportunity to take stock and reaffirm commitment to the Charter. A discussion on how to revitalize the Charter will need to both address how commitments to its purposes and principles can be reaffirmed and realized; and to identify to what extent amendments are needed to adapt to the demands of a changing world.

Dag Hammarskjöld’s integrity, determination and tireless work to adapt the Organization and find solutions through constructive application of the Charter remains a source of inspiration and a guiding compass. In his last Annual Report to the General Assembly in 1961 Hammarskjöld argued that the objectives of the Charter should be progressively achieved through the realization of four fundamental principles:

  • Equal political rights, both in terms of sovereign equality and individual respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
  • Equal economic opportunities, thereby promoting higher standards of living through the creation of conditions conducive to development and economic and social advancement.
  • A firm rule of law framework underlying the actions and activities of the international community.
  • The prohibition of the use of force contrary to the common interest of the international community.2

In many ways Dag Hammarskjöld was both an idealist and a realist—an idealist in that he believed in the possibilities of the United Nations and the purposes and principles of the Charter, a realist in understanding the limits of the Organization and those of its Member States that are guided mainly by national interests. In a speech in 1956 Hammarskjöld commented on the divide between idealism and realism. Considering assertions that the United Nations had failed as often misleading, he said: “Do we refer to the purposes of the Charter? They are expressions of universally shared ideals which cannot fail us, though we, alas, often fail them. Or do we think of the institutions of the United Nations? They are our tools. We fashioned them. We use them. It is our responsibility to remedy any flaws there may be in them.”3

In the context of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, we can reflect on the words of Hammarskjöld that remind us that the Charter of the United Nations cannot fail us, but it is the responsibility of Member States to remedy any flaws. All sections of the Preamble of the Charter are interlinked and interdependent—as Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Jan Eliasson, articulated at the thirteenth annual Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture in 2011: “…lasting solutions require that the pursuit of peace, development and human rights must take place in parallel. There is no peace without development; there is no development without peace; and there is no sustainable peace and development without respect for human rights. If one of these three pillars is weak in a nation or a region, the whole structure is weak. Therefore, walls and barriers between these areas must be taken down.”4

The following eight statements, inspired by Hammarskjöld’s vision and legacy, could inform the dialogue and process for a stronger and more effective United Nations:

  • The Charter should be enforced and Member States should reaffirm and recognize that its implementation remains their responsibility. The 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly should pave the way for a joint declaration on reform discussions focusing on the implementation of the pillars of the Preamble and a time-bound process for decision on amendments.
  • The United Nations must ensure the people-centric dimension of the Charter. The opening line of the Charter—“We the peoples” must be placed at the centre of the Organization and its operations, and the United Nations as a whole needs to revisit its ideological basis to ensure inclusivity.
  • United Nations leadership and the integrity of the international civil servant should be reinforced. The Charter provides—as repeatedly stressed by Dag Hammarskjöld—for a strong and independent role for the Secretary-General who should remain loyal only to the principles of the Charter. The election of the next Secretary-General provides an important opportunity to further enhance transparency and accountability. The United Nations also should revitalize the principles of impartiality, integrity and ethics of the international civil servant, as enshrined in Articles 100 and 101 of the Charter. The United Nations should move to ensure a twenty-first century Secretariat with greater integrity, and with a professional, dynamic and more mobile staff.
  • The Security Council must be democratic and expanded to reflect geopolitical realities of today’s world. The stalemate regarding reform efforts must be broken and a clearly defined process for reaching agreement with a set date for completion should be established. If we fail to reform the Security Council, it will continue to lose authority and increasingly be ignored, and thereby risk losing its role in the safeguarding of international peace and security. A proposal to limit the use of the veto, for instance in cases of grave atrocities or massive human rights violations, should be considered. Enlargement of the Council will require amending the Charter. This can be done—it has been amended three times before—with the first set of amendments changing the composition of the Council.
  • Efforts to maintain peace and security must involve new methods and improved instruments to promote prevention and peacebuilding: The United Nations has not been able to live up to its purpose of saving future generations from the scourge of war. United Nations peacebuilding and peacekeeping operations must be reconsidered. Articles 34 and 41, which refer to measures not involving the use of armed forces, should be further explored and applied to recognize the need for prevention and peaceful settlement of conflicts. Greater efforts are required to ensure that the participation of women in peacebuilding is guaranteed. The use of Chapter VIII provisions of the Charter should be enhanced to clarify and increase cooperation with regional organizations.
  • Human rights must be respected, applied and defended: The United Nations is instrumental to the development and promotion of international norms and standards. Member States must recommit to protecting and promoting human rights, including those of women and girl children, and respect and implement the fundamental values and principles as defined and endorsed in the global legal treaties and frameworks, which require compliance by all Member States.
  • Justice and respect for international law should be expanded to include a provision on gender justice and environmental law: We must give broader acknowledgement to and develop new approaches regarding gender justice. We must integrate environmental law across the United Nations work on the rule of law and ensure that it is made an integral part in the development of sustainable development goals.
  • Social progress must be reoriented towards global sustainable development and addressed as a responsibility for all. The Charter must be amended to include sustainability.

Dag Hammarskjöld was instrumental in identifying and setting agendas for reform. But he was also acutely aware of the limits and the need for pragmatism in pursuance of such reforms. After only a year in office, he paraphrased Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.: “It has been said that the United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell. That sums up as well as anything I have heard both the essential role of the United Nations and the attitude of mind that we should bring to its support.”5

Hammarskjöld embodied and lived up to many of the principles of the Charter as expressed in his personal virtues, ethics and beliefs. But he was aware of the time required for the endeavour of building a truly united world to bear fruit. As he stated in his address at New York University on 20 May 1956: “…we are still seeking ways to make our international institutions fulfil more effectively the fundamental purpose expressed in Woodrow Wilson’s words—‘to be the eye of the nations to keep watch upon the common interest’. I have no doubt that forty years from now we shall also be engaged in the same pursuit. How could we expect otherwise? World organization is still a new adventure in human history. It needs much perfecting in the crucible of experiences and there is no substitute for time in that respect.”6

Notwithstanding, Hammarskjöld had no doubt that the United Nations, despite all its limitations, is an Organization of which humanity is in need: “We need it for the constructive additions it offers in international attempts to resolve conflicts of interest. And we need it as a foundation and a framework for arduous and time-consuming attempts to find norms in which an extra-national—or perhaps even supranational—influence may be brought to bear in the prevention of future conflicts.”7


Official Records of the General Assembly, Sixteenth Session, Supplement No.1A (a/4800/add.1), p. 2.

2  Hans Corell, “Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations and the Rule of Law in Today’s World”, lecture at Dag Hammarskjöld University College of International Relations and Diplomacy, Zagreb, 29 November 2011.

3  Dag Hammarskjöld, “Address at New York University Hall of Fame Ceremony on the Unveiling of the Bust and Tablet for Woodrow Wilson, New York, 20 May 1956”, in  Public Papers of the Secretaries-General of The United Nations, vol. III: Dag Hammarskjöld 1956-1957, Andrew W. Cordier and Wilder Foote, eds. (New York and London, Columbia University Press 1973), p. 145.

4  Jan Eliasson, Peace, Development and Human Rights. The Indispensable Connection. The Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture 2011 (Uppsala, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, 2011), p. 12.

5  Dag Hammarskjöld, “Address at University of California Convocation, Berkeley, California, 13 May 1954”, in Public Papers of the Secretaries-General of The United Nations, vol. II: Dag Hammarskjöld 1953-1956, Andrew W. Cordier and Wilder Foote, eds. (New York and London, Columbia University Press 1972), p. 301.

6  Dag Hammarskjöld, “Address at New York University Hall of Fame Ceremony on the Unveiling of the Bust and Tablet for Woodrow Wilson, New York, 20 may 1956”, p. 145.

7  Dag Hammarskjöld, “’Do We Need the United Nations?’, Address Before the Students’ Association, Copenhagen, 2 may 1959”, in Public Papers of the Secretaries-General of The United Nations, vol. IV: Dag Hammarskjöld 1958-1960, Andrew W. Cordier and Wilder Foote, eds. (New York and London, Columbia University Press 1974), p. 374.