The 75th anniversary of the first UN General Assembly meeting in London
With the signing of the UN Charter, in San Francisco on 26 June 1945, the UN existed on paper but was without staff, money, or a home.
A preparatory commission was set up to turn the blueprint of the Charter into a working organisation. The commission was based in London and it was here that the first meetings of the General Assembly (10 January 1946) and the Security Council (17 January) were held.
‘get this thing started’
The executive secretary of the preparatory commission was British diplomat Gladwyn Jebb. On his appointment, Jebb turned to his assistant, David Owen, saying: ‘I’ll handle the high diplomacy; you take on the rest. Find an office and a secretary and get this thing started.’
Owen borrowed a typewriter from the Foreign Office and a secretary from the War Office. Accommodation was found in Church House, the peacetime home of the Church of England. ‘Together in a taxi we headed for Church House in Westminster, drove through the courtyard and knocked on the door’ Owen recalled. ‘The old custodian peered at us across a barricade of sandbags used as protection against bombing and demanded to know who we were. “We are the United Nations” I remember answering. And that was the beginning.’
Jebb and Owen were assisted by Brian Urquhart, who died recently aged 101 (both Urquhart and Owen would both go on to have distinguished careers with the UN). Fresh from the army, Urquhart was enthusiastic about his pioneering task:
‘To work for peace was a dream fulfilled, and the fact that everything had to be organised from scratch was an added incentive. Nothing seemed too much trouble and no hours too long.’
They threw themselves into everything, from moving furniture to meeting dignitaries. They shipped a thousand boxes of documents from the San Francisco conference to London, found two thousand beds for the delegates, and organised a venue.
‘bathed in prayer’
Church House was earmarked for the Security Council but the General Assembly demanded a bigger building. Medieval Westminster Hall was too cold for use in winter so the Methodist Central Hall close to Parliament, an Edwardian Baroque building in the Viennese style, was chosen. Work began to make it look as impressive as possible for the international gathering, using the new UN colours of blue and gold. National flags, brought from San Francisco, hung on the outside of the building.
There was a certain symbolism in the inaugural meeting of the UN being held in a place of worship. Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary in the new Labour Government, had said that he had wanted to host the meeting in a venue which had been ‘bathed in prayer’ reflecting the twin imperatives of the pain of the war and hope for the future.
The Government did its best, within its limited means, to make the delegates from 51 countries welcome. The delegates had use of the YMCA canteen, temporary ration books and clothing coupons, and the Women’s Voluntary Service conducted tours to ‘bombed areas and other places of interest’.
‘We must and will succeed’
Ambassador Zuleta Angel of Colombia, president of the preparatory commission, opened proceedings on 10 January. ‘Determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…’ he said, ‘…we have come to this British capital, which bears upon it the deep impress of a heroic majesty to constitute the General Assembly of the United Nations and to make a genuine and sincere beginning with the application of the San Francisco Charter.’
In contrast to San Francisco, war-torn London provided a stark reminder to delegates of the importance of the new organisation’s mission. Prime Minister Clement Attlee made the inaugural speech, in which he stressed that the UN must become ‘the over-riding factor in foreign policy’. He impressed upon them:
‘Let us be clear as to what is our ultimate aim. It is not just the negation of war, but the creation of a world of security and freedom, of a world which is governed by justice and the moral law. We desire to assert the pre-eminence of right over might and the general good against selfish and sectional aims…We must and will succeed’.
The General Assembly continued for over a month, under the chair of its newly elected first president, M. Spaak, the Belgian Foreign Minister.
‘no more important meeting’
On the eve of the General Assembly opening, delegates were entertained by HM King George VI at a state banquet at St James’ Palace. In his speech, the King stated that London, ‘this ancient capital,’ provided a worthy setting for the momentous discussions to come. ‘In the long course of our history, no more important meeting has ever taken place within its boundaries’ – a sentiment that still holds true to this day.