In June of 1945, as people around the globe were coming to terms with the devastation of World War II, delegates from fifty nations met in San Francisco to try to accomplish what world leaders had failed to do after World War I: establish a lasting organization of countries with the explicit goal of ending warfare.
One of the largest and most consequential diplomatic gatherings ever to take place, the San Francisco Conference saw 3,500 attendees representing 80% of the world’s population, along with 2,500 members of the press, gather to debate how to promote human welfare and global peace.
The assembly’s starting point was a series of declarations and conferences held in the previous four years, beginning with the Declaration of St. James’ Palace, in which nine exiled governments in London convened to consider not just how to win the war but how to maintain permanent peace. “Would we win only to live in dread of yet another war? Should we not define some purpose more creative than military victory? Is it not possible to shape a better life for all countries and peoples and cut the causes of war at their roots?” they asked.
After much debate and hundreds of meetings by steering committees and subcommittees, the attendees in San Francisco passed the Charter unanimously in a remarkable display of global cooperation. But the Charter was far from an end in itself. Instead, it was a dynamic structure within which nations would work. Said President Truman at the signing, “If we fail to use [the UN], we shall betray all those who have died so that we might meet here in freedom and safety to create it. If we seek to use it selfishly—for the advantage of any one nation or any small group of nations—we shall be equally guilty of that betrayal.”
The UN’s idealistic mission—to “end the scourge of war,” “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights,” and promote “the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”—is, in other words, a horizon. Political negotiation, acumen, the ability to understand other points of view, and long-term thinking are all required to achieve progress toward it. The past 75 years have proved that this goal has not been achieved, yet none can doubt the importance of global cooperation in preventing war on the scale seen in the 20th century.
Since 1945, the organization has taken its broad mission and developed it by passing resolutions and creating supranational institutions in areas as diverse as human rights, women’s rights, and the welfare of children that actively promote prosperity and health. In this context, acts such as the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the development of the International Criminal Court carry definitive weight that early symbolic gestures couldn’t. They put significant international pressure on member states to comply with international law and adopt the targets of member states.
Assistant Dean Shruti Rana, who is director of the International Law and Institutions Degree Program, knows how important international laws are for how states and localities operate. Says Rana, “Global law isn’t something that is sort of floating above domestic laws… It’s something that’s a part of everything that we do in our local communities.” HLS students themselves have visited the UN as part of a human rights practicum to see first-hand how international laws are implemented domestically by members.
At the Hamilton Lugar School, the ideals of the UN—seeking shared understanding and celebrating differences—motivate the curriculum. And, as at the UN, these ideals are not an achieved state but an active process that requires reflection, analysis, and cross-cultural knowledge.
On October 7, every new Hamilton Lugar School student received the UN Charter. The goals that motivated its adoption—global cooperation in the service of promoting peace and human welfare—are HLS’s goals. Even in times when this goal seems distant, we can gain strength from those who set these ideals to paper and committed themselves to making progress even when it was difficult and the obstacles were significant. Understanding the uses of these international institutions and working within them can make a real difference in people’s lives, as they have for the past 75 years.