Remarks at the National Archives to Commemorate the United Nations 70th Anniversary

Wendy R. Sherman
Under Secretary for Political Affairs 
Washington, DC
July 28, 2015

(As Prepared)

Peter, thank you for the kind introduction. David and Cristina, I’m honored to serve on the same panel with you. I would like to begin by thanking the UN Foundation, the UN Information Center, and the U.S. National Archives for co-hosting this great event. And I want to welcome you all – Excellencies from the diplomatic corps, Members of Congress, representatives of the UN family, leaders from civil society, guests and friends -- thank you so much for joining us in marking the 70th anniversary of the signing of the UN charter.

On June 26th, 1945, President Harry S. Truman stood before a truly global audience at the San Francisco Conference and declared, “The Charter of the United Nations, which you are now signing, is a solid structure upon which we can build a better world. History will honor you for it.”

One month later and 70 years ago today - July 28, 1945 - the U.S. Senate ratified the Charter and the United States formally committed itself to membership in the UN. The international family is much larger now than it was then, but over time, country after country has also signed, ratified, and pledged to uphold the principles contained in that document.

This matters because the world will always have need of a common set of ideals and goals. I tell my colleagues at the Department of State, that virtually every issue has a multilateral dimension. It follows that we need every effective multilateral forum we can find – and the UN has long been known as the meetinghouse of humankind.

It’s no secret that, as we speak, urgent transnational challenges are growing in scope, scale, variety, and lethality.

One example is climate change. This is a threat that is undermining stability and development at the regional, national, and sub-national levels. We simply have to change course through conservation, the increased use of renewable sources of power, and strategies for climate-resilient development. Under President Obama, the United States is doing just that by taking historic steps to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and put forward an ambitious set of post-2020 targets. We also have significantly increased our help to developing countries and are fully engaged diplomatically in the effort to achieve a truly ambitious and truly global climate change agreement in Paris later this year. This is a top priority for President Obama and for Secretary Kerry – and it should be a top priority for anyone who cares about the future.

Climate change is an example – and there are many – of where the UN serves as a forum and convener, even though the primary responsibility for action rests with member states. That’s just how the world works. And it means that states and populations have to be fair in what we expect the UN on its own to do. But the very existence of the UN is a beacon that should remind leaders everywhere of the responsibilities they share.

The truth is that the UN is in my DNA. In fact, my parents attended that founding conference in San Francisco. The reason is simple; they had known war and so they hated war. My father helped to create the American Veterans Committee and came up with the idea of a United Nations Servicemen’s League, to build support for world peace. We should always remember that the UN is not the product of some Utopian dream. On the contrary, it emerged from the nightmare of Holocaust and war. It wasn’t built by starry-eyed idealists, but by survivors who were determined that their children and their children’s children would not have to experience what they had endured or survive what they had survived.

My parents taught me a lesson I have never forgotten. If you want to know the price of failed diplomacy – talk to a veteran. Neither my parents, nor anyone else of their generation, conceived of the UN as some kind of magic wand that would guarantee global harmony. On the contrary, they saw it as one tool among many that could be used to support and strengthen the forces of peace and law. But it was an important tool – and it remains so today. It can also be a source of inspiration.

I was still a child when my father took me to hear Eleanor Roosevelt speak several years after the founding of the UN. That event had a huge impact on me. Mrs. Roosevelt became a role model for me – and she still is; not because she was a woman, but because she told the truth.

It was Roosevelt, of course, who did more than any American to shape the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which I continue to invoke regularly. Whatever excuse a government might put forward to justify the mistreatment of its citizens – the Universal Declaration is the counter-argument that can’t be avoided. Every government is on the hook. A government either abides by its obligations or it doesn’t – and if it wants the world’s respect, it will.

At the same time, we all know that the Universal Declaration, like the UN Charter and the UN itself, reflects the desires and aspirations of the world community more fully than the reality. We have goals that we have not yet met. That may be why our former Ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, used to joke that when talking about the UN, the best he could hope was that “a mild wave of enthusiasm might run through the audience.” Another ambassador and firm backer of the UN, Madeleine Albright, observed that many Americans had doubts about the world body “because it is very big, which is true; often inefficient, which is also true; and full of foreigners, which really can’t be helped.”

It is important to be realistic about our expectations, but we should also be honest about the benefits that the UN has been able to provide. The UN is the only multi−purpose organization with global membership and legitimacy. It is an unmatched forum for the discussion of vital issues from counter-terrorism to the empowerment of women to the fight against extreme poverty. As I speak, UN peacekeeping operations are deployed in record numbers, trying to protect civilians and keep small disputes from growing into large ones. And UN Special representatives are striving to find the basis for lasting stability in such trouble spots as Syria, Libya, Yemen, South Sudan and Burundi.

Meanwhile, every day, UN agencies help businesspeople by protecting intellectual property rights and by setting standards on the fairness of competition and the quality of products. They help farmers by transmitting early warning of storms. They help workers by promoting core labor standards. And they make the world more humane by feeding children, fighting disease, and caring for the record number of international homeless, the world's refugees.

There is no question that the UN Security Council is in need of reform and that it can sometimes be slow to move forward because of divisions among its permanent members. But when it is able to act, it can accomplish goals that no other body can achieve. Council action was instrumental, for example, in eliminating Syria’s declared stockpile of chemical weapons – and in investigating more recent incidents involving the misuse of chlorine gas. The Council has also been a major contributor to efforts we strongly support to combat the flow of foreign terrorist fighters to the Middle East, to counter piracy off the Horn of Africa, to support development and progress toward greater security in Afghanistan, and to make North Korea pay a high price for its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Finally, just last week, the Council unanimously approved a resolution to implement the deal we reached in Vienna earlier this month to prevent Iran from acquiring the fissile material required for a nuclear weapon.

The Vienna agreement – in fact, the whole negotiation -- would not have been possible without Council involvement and solidarity. All five permanent members of the Council were full participants in the negotiations, along with Germany, the EU and, of course, Iran.

I’m not going to get into a long defense of the deal this afternoon, but I will share with you my profound conviction that it is in the best interests of the United States, our allies (including Israel), the Gulf States, and the world.

The Vienna plan will place strict limits on an Iranian nuclear program that was headed in a very dangerous direction and ensure that it will remain peaceful and subject to the tightest set of inspection and verification measures ever negotiated.

It will remove a source of added tension in a part of the world that has long been under great stress.

It will strengthen the global nuclear nonproliferation regime at a critical moment.

And it will ensure that, in the future, we will have the maximum amount of international support in holding Iran to the commitments it has made. Because, under the Vienna plan, if Iran fails to meet its obligations; the multilateral economic sanctions will snap back. And if Iran tries to cheat, we will know it and with ample time to formulate an effective response.

When I was flying home from Vienna a couple of weeks ago – and it seems like a couple of years -- I thought about my parents and about their visit to San Francisco in 1945. I thought about their hopes for the UN and their desire that the world find ways to organize itself better against the possibilities of war.

I think if they were here today, they would have mixed feelings. Obviously, not every hope has been realized. There are terrible dangers present on the world scene. There remain too many conflicts, too many people uprooted, too many children suffering, too much bigotry, and too much distrust and hate. But no one has given up. The world community continues to work together to implement those enduring Charter promises: to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war; to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom; and to reaffirm faith in the dignity and worth of every human being.

Seventy years ago, when Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg returned to Washington from the Convention in San Francisco where the UN Charter was approved, he was challenged by those who thought it too idealistic and visionary.

He replied that: “You may tell me that I have but to scan the present world with realistic eyes in order to see the fine phrases (of the Charter)…reduced to a shambles…I reply that the nearer right you may be…the greater is the need for the new pattern which promises…to stem those evil tides.”

The post-war generation understood that although it was the better angels of human nature that made the UN possible; it was the lesser angels that made it necessary.

That was the reality then; it is the situation we confront now. We all have a responsibility – every nation, big and small; every citizens group, domestic and overseas; every individual, to the full extent of his or her power; we all have a duty to do what we can to transform the ideals of the UN into a new and better reality for generations to come. To that end, I pledge my own best efforts, and respectfully summon yours. Thank you.