75th Anniversary of the United Nations
On the 10th January 1946, in a world convalescing from the horrors of a World War, the inaugural meeting of the United Nations General Assembly took place at Methodist Central Hall Westminster (MCHW). Unscathed by the war, MCHW was the ideal choice to host the UN's General Assembly. The Trustees at the time, however, had to be persuaded by Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin and others that “there could be no better place than a House of God, with the atmosphere of prayer already there”. The Revd Dr. William Sangster and his congregation vacated the premises to worship at the Victoria Palace and then the London Coliseum.
The Great Hall was redecorated, the seating removed, carpets laid and translation booths installed. Tables 40 feet long were put in place for the delegations of the 51 nations attending. A fifth chandelier was suspended from the dome to help the work of the many photographers present. Indeed, 800 journalists covered the proceedings, marginally outnumbering the delegates. It was the first international conference to be broadcast globally and covered by television, then in its infancy.
The stage itself was boxed in and the organ hidden by a large pleated curtain, the backcloth for the new United Nation’s symbol – a map of the world encircled with olive branches. Drinking facilities were available in one area, much to the annoyance of some Methodists because it contravened church policy on alcohol.
As delegates stepped from their cars and taxis they looked up and saw the flag of their nation festooning the front of Central Hall. Prominent were the flags of Latin America, but the Iraqi and Iranian flags were there, too, as well as those of America and the Soviet Union. The flags of South Africa, Ethiopia, Egypt and Liberia were the only ones from Africa, still largely under Western colonial rule. There were a few Asian flags, either, though those of China and the Philippine Commonwealth were in evidence. India was present, though not yet independent. ‘The beautiful flowing robes and headgear of the keffiya and agal of the Saudi delegates harmonised with the delicate settings of the occasion,’ wrote a Times reporter. Many public figures were in the visitors’ gallery, including Mrs. Attlee, the Prime Minister’s wife, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, and Marshall of the RAF, Lord tedder.
Memories of Geneva were revived by the presence of some who had played a part in the League of Nations, brought into being exactly 26 years earlier on 10 January. Now delegates listened intently to speakers destined to play significant roles in the ensuing decades like Andre Vyshinski and Andrei Gromyko from the Soviet Union, and Eleanor Roosevelt, (watch below) whose husband during his war-time Presidency, had been involved in early discussions with Russia and Britain. These had led to an historic meeting in San Francisco in April 1945, when 45 states had gathered to plan the league’s replacement.
Other delegates later to achieve eminence included Perez de Cuellar, subsequently United Nations Secretary General (1982-1991), but then a member of the Peruvian delegtion, and John Foster Dulles and Adlai Stevenson, who were part of the American team. Britain herself was strongly represented by Prime Minister Clement Attlee, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevan, Philip Noel-Baker, later to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Ellen Wilkinson, MP, and Sir Hartley Shawcross, one of the Nuremberg prosectors. In welcoming delegates, Attlee drew attention to the bomb sites of London but spoke of the ultimate dream which. According to Brian Urquhart, later a close colleague of Dag Hammarskjold (UN Secretary General) was ‘the creation of a world of security and freedom,’ governed by justice and the moral law.
On the floor of the Great Hall in Central Hall the General Assembly had not only to grapple with appropriate procedures for an international body but also with grave topics like the peaceful uses of atomic energy; refugees; self-determination for colonial people; economic and social inequalities and the role of women in public life, themes destined to occupy it for the next 50 years. Debating and commentating on such matters were Jan Masaryk from Czechoslovakia, the South African delegation claiming to speak for Africa and Henri Spaak, from Belgium, presiding over the proceedings with both firmness and courtesy, flanked by Gladwyn Jebb and Andrew Cordier as procedural advisers.
The General Assembly also had to establish structures for the United Nations. So the essential ingredients were agreed upon which were to dominate the ensuing years: the Security Council itself, with its permanent and rotating membership; the International Court of Justice; the United Nations Economic and Social Council and the Trusteeship Committee. In addition, delegates elected their first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie from Norway. The Security Council itself met in nearby Church House on 17 January. Two days later the presence of Soviet troops in Persia (now Iran) was brought before it, quickly followed by a counter-move complaining of British troops in Greece and Indonesia. ‘The pattern of the future was already in place.’ Brian Urquhart has commented.
Near the end of the General Assembly Eleanor Roosevelt presented a declaration from the women present about their participation in United Nation’s work. ‘I hope none of us will go away from here without remembering that we have great responsibility to carry to our people the feeling that this can be an instrument … to win peace,’ she declared in her usual forceful style.
Many diverse voices were heard, of course. The Mexican delegation spoke strongly about the problem of Spain, then still under General Franco’s rule, and not present. China spoke of her special interest in seeing the people of Asia gain self-determination while the Cuban delegation put forward declarations on the International Rights and Duties of Man and the Rights and Duties of Nations. The Assembly was also pleased to hear that the new UN headquarters was to be built in New York City.