25 June 2020
The Charter of the United Nations has been a constant presence in my life. My awareness of it started with the usual brief introduction to the basics of the United Nations as an organization that many young people receive in school. Later, as my political awareness took shape against the backdrop of military rule in Portugal and my country’s status as a colonial power, the Charter’s calls for self-determination and other freedoms registered with urgency. During the time I spent as a volunteer in the poor neighbourhoods of Lisbon, the Charter’s vision of social justice was equally resonant. In subsequent service as a parliamentarian and then as Prime Minister, I was privileged to have an opportunity to advance not only national progress but one of the Charter’s other main objectives: international cooperation. Across a decade as High Commissioner for Refugees and now in my current role, the Charter’s power inspires me onward every day in serving “we the peoples”, including the most vulnerable members of the human family, who have a special claim on that landmark document’s provisions and protections.
The adoption of the Charter of the United Nations was a pivotal and historic moment. The document enshrined a determination to establish a new international order built with the purpose of avoiding a third world war following two such cataclysms that took place within the space of a single generation. Over the past seventy-five years, the Charter has proven to be a solid yet flexible framework. Its ideals have endured, and its legal foundation has progressively adjusted to new situations and needs. Amidst crisis and complexity, the Charter has remained the touchstone we all refer to and rely upon to uphold our shared responsibilities and achieve our global commitments.
In an era of spreading hatred and impunity, the Charter reminds us of the primacy of human dignity and the rule of law. And in a time of rapid transformation and technological change, the Charter’s values and objectives endure: the peaceful settlement of disputes; the equal rights of men and women; non-intervention, self-determination and the sovereign equality of Member States; and clear rules governing the use of force, as set out in Article 2, paragraph 4, and Chapter VII of the Charter.
These principles are not favours or concessions. They form the bedrock of international relations and are central to peace. They have saved lives, advanced economic and social progress and inspired the further elaboration of international law, encompassing key areas such as human rights, the environment and international criminal justice.
When these principles have been flouted, put aside or applied selectively, the results have been catastrophic: conflict, chaos, death, disillusion and mistrust. Our shared challenge is to do far better in upholding the Charter’s values. One of the most effective ways to fulfil our commitments is to invest in prevention, as envisaged in the Charter’s Chapter VI. Another is by working more closely with regional organizations, as foreseen in Chapter VIII. And while peacekeeping is not mentioned in the Charter, it epitomizes the kind of collective action for peace that the Charter envisions and is an indispensable tool that merits strong international support.
Resilient and visionary, the Charter of the United Nations speaks to all people; it belongs to everyone, everywhere. At a time when the world is wrestling with the COVID-19 pandemic, rising geopolitical tensions and growing climate disruption, the Charter points the way to the solidarity we need today and across generations. As we strive to maintain international peace and security, protect human rights, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and strengthen multilateralism, we must return to fundamental principles; we must return to the framework that has kept us together; we must come home to our Charter.
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