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To remember and to reconcile

06 November 2015

Peter Marshall links the Second World War, the UN, and Commonwealth in a new way


Recalled: the Kohima Cemetery

Recalled: the Kohima Cemetery

THIS Remembrancetide, 70 years on, we can recall the poignant language of the Kohima War Cemetery epitaph, and ask ourselves: “Have we collectively managed our Tomorrow in a manner worthy of the sacrifice of those who gave their Today?”

In comparison with what transpired after the First World War, we can say that our stewardship of Tomorrow passes muster. To a great extent, this is thanks to the work of the United Nations, which also marked its 70th anniversary this year — on UN Day, 24 October, the day that the UN Charter came into force.

In the case of the Second World War, a dramatic start was made early on with plans for an effective post-war universal organisation. Churchill and Roosevelt signed the Atlantic Charter in August 1941. That was before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and in very dark days for Britain.


THE draft of the UN Charter was prepared by Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. Although warm in content, its wording was, of necessity, formal, legal, and administrative. And it ran to 100-plus articles, none of them surplus to requirements, at least at the outset. Something was needed to make it more user-friendly.

The answer was the Preamble, put together in London, on the eve of the San Francisco Conference, by a group of Commonwealth ministers, working together in the informal and people-conscious tradition that is their wont.

In a mere 200 words of sublime clarity, the Preamble breathes vitality and promise into what follows in the main body of the Charter. It is perhaps the greatest text in the history of diplomacy.

Its opening words, “We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war . . .”, are a worthy answer to the cry from Kohima.


ANY significant commemorative event is likely to be composed of three elements:

• remembrance of what was achieved, endured, suffered, or sacrificed;

• rededication to the collective responsibilities to which we are called by that remembrance; and

• reconciliation, be it intergovernmental or interpersonal, between those whose relationships were destroyed as a result of what happened.


All these elements are present, explicitly or implicitly, in the Kohima epitaph and the Preamble to the UN Charter, woven together in gratitude and hope.

Has the UN system proved its worth? The answer is unquestionably yes. There is an enormous catalogue of achievement to which we can point, even as our habitat has evolved from a world economy into a global village. This expands our vistas; it also complicates our ongoing managerial tasks.


AN UNREPEATABLE occasion to renew our common commitment will soon arise. In the coming new year, 10 January 2016 will mark the 70th anniversary of the opening of the first-ever meetings of the UN General Assembly and Security Council.

They were held symbolically in war-torn, bomb-scarred London, the heart of beleaguered, emaciated Britain, a war-theatre participant from the very first to the very last in the great conflict, with the Commonwealth as a steadfast stay and comfort.

Veterans remember how much that great support meant to us in Britain. It was expressed by Churchill in his inimitable fashion. When he was closing the final session of the Commonwealth ministerial meeting that devised the Preamble, he observed: “On every occasion throughout the war on which representatives of the Commonwealth had visited London, the United Kingdom Government had been refreshed by their advice and buoyed up by their assistance and good counsel.”

At the Methodist Central Hall, opposite Westminster Abbey, there is a plaque that reads: “To the glory of God, and in prayer for peace on Earth, this tablet commemorates the first meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations in the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, Jan 10-Feb 14 1946.”

Eternal vigilance has rightly been described as the price of safety. It is the prerequisite of true management of our interdependent Tomorrow. Eternal involvement is the indispensable foundation of that eternal vigilance.


This is adapted from an address given in St Mary Abbots, Kensington, at a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the UN.

Sir Peter Marshall served in the RAF in the Second World War, and is taking part in the Festival of Remembrance in the Royal Albert Hall tomorrow. He has spent his career as a diplomat, and was Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General 1983-88.


PREAMBLE to the UN Charter




• to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and

• to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and

• to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and

• to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,




• to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and

• to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and

• to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and

• to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,




Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.

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