The San Francisco Conference and the Evitable UN Vetoes

A man sets out signs at the San Francisco Conference

Robert A. James reviews the surprising history of the United Nations Security Council veto, the five permanent members solution, and the various alternatives proposed during the discussion. Although the current Security Council format appears historically inevitable, there is ample evidence of alternative formats suggested at the time of the construction of the United Nations.

Beginning with advent of the League of Nations, James reviews how the veto power impeded the institution and how it was perceived domestically and internationally. In comparison, James notes the diplomatic maneuvering during the early-war conference that set the stage for the United Nations Security Council veto system culminating with the final war conferences at Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta, and how the political and diplomatic positions of the United States and the Soviet Union impacted negotiations.

Subsequently, James reviews the event of the post-war conference in San Francisco, where the general format for the United Nations Security Council was finalized. Finally, James summarizes various post-San Francisco proposals to change the format, and how the Security Council system has influenced other international institutions.

By Robert James

Partner, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP; board member, United States District Court for the Northern District of California Historical Society. This article is based on remarks at the Society’s Feb. 7, 2023, program “War Crimes: From the 1945 San Francisco UN Conference to Today.”

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