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Every day’s a holiday at the U.N. (including today!)

The U.N. calendar has grown cluttered with so many worthy days of observance, commemorations, and holidays that most of them pass unnoticed. There are U.N. days for postal workers, torture victims, slaves, journalists, aid workers, women, children, statisticians and philosophers. The U.N. sets aside time to mark tributes to oceans, forests, deserts and even outer ...


The U.N. calendar has grown cluttered with so many worthy days of observance, commemorations, and holidays that most of them pass unnoticed. There are U.N. days for postal workers, torture victims, slaves, journalists, aid workers, women, children, statisticians and philosophers. The U.N. sets aside time to mark tributes to oceans, forests, deserts and even outer space. One entire year (2008) was designated to honor the simple potato.

James Reinl, the U.N. reporter for the Dubai-based newspaper, The National, took note this week of the U.N. decision to add World Statistics Day to the long lists of commemorative dates, and suggested it may be time to set aside a day for common sense, perhaps the International Day Without Observance.

“Does either World Television Day (November 21) or Africa Industrialization Day (November 20) warrant a dedication?” Reinl asks. “The U.N.-designated homage to philosophy, an annual occurrence on the third Thursday of November, is unlikely to yield any great debate on the Socratic dialogues or Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.”

“The result is a calendar overloaded with observances. While many are noble and noteworthy in their own rights, they often fail to leave a mark on the popular imagination,” he added.  “It is only a matter of time before all 365 days have been taken, and U.N. members will clamor to pass a resolution utilizing the final vacant slot for a pet project — perhaps February 29, which occurs only once every four years.”

Perhaps there is no great crime in taking a moment to reflect on the abundance of underappreciated people, like the annual tributes to school teachers, the elderly or indigenous peoples. After all, no one gets to take a day off for most U.N. days. U.N. officials only get ten official holidays: they include major American holidays like Independence Day and Memorial Day, and Christian and Muslim religious days like Christmas and Eid Al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. There are no official days off for Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist holidays. 

Here is a list of some of my favorite commemorations that the U.N. encourages us to observe:

*World Philosophy Day (Nov. 18 – today!): In 2002, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization established a day to honor philosophers in order to promote “philosophical reflection accessible to all,” including scholars, students and the general public. Taking the opportunity to reflect, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon today let us know his deep thoughts: “On this International Philosophy Day, let us pledge to do our part to guard against the politics of polarization, and to reject stereotypes, ignorance and hatred.”

*World Statistics Day (Oct. 20). Finally, the world’s number crunchers get a day they can call their own. This year, the U.N. observed for the first time the importance of statistics in helping people decide how much food to produce, how many roads to pave, and how many guns will be needed in the event of an unforeseen invasion by a pernicious neighbor. “Statistics permeate every aspect of modern life,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in announcing the new holiday.

*International Mountain Day (Dec. 11): This seems like a real honor until you consider that forests (2011) get a year and deserts get our entire current decade.  The world’s oceans didn’t fare any better, securing only a single day (June 8).

*International Mother Earth Day (April 22): This one might be too pagan for Christian and Islamic fundamentalists alike.

*International Mother Language Day (Feb. 21) This one’s an uphill battle. Even France, which endured the embarrassment of seeing a top French civil servant, IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Khan, delivering a speech to the U.N. this year in English, must realize it’s fighting a losing battle against English. But this annual commemoration, established at UNESCO in Paris in 1999, shows they still try.

*World Population Day. (July 11) This day has its roots in a July 1987 conference called the Day of Five Billion, a meeting aimed at raising awareness of the uncontrolled growth of the human race. But the numbers have since surpassed 6 billion and are set to continue rise, forcing the U.N. to change the name of the observance.

*World Television Day (Nov. 21): The thing about this one is that it doesn’t even commemorate the television. It celebrates the November 1996 founding of the World Television Forum at U.N. headquarters. “States were invited to observe the day by encouraging global exchanges of television programs focusing on issues such as peace, security, economic and social development,” according to a U.N. fact sheet. 

*Week of Solidarity with the People of Non-Self-Governing Territories (Begins May 25). With the numbers of colonies in long-term decline, it may be time to downgrade this one to a day.

*World Teachers Day (Oct. 5): Surely, this group requires special consideration, but they already get the summer off. And aren’t they already recognized by the U.N. Literacy Decade: Education for All (2003-2012).

*World Space Week (Oct. 4-10). Space week commemorates two milestones in the history of outer space: the Oct. 4, 1957 launching of the first artificial satellite, the Soviet Sputnik 1; and the entry into force of the Oct. 1967 treaty on the Principles Governing the Activities in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space. The week simply glosses over a particularly significant moment in the history of outer space exploration: the day the U.S. landed a man on the moon.

 *International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer (Sept 16). I think this one is in need of an update. Perhaps it can be dubbed the International Climate Change Day. 

*World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (May 17). Adopted in 2006, this commemorative day calls for promoting the internet to bridge the digital divide between the world poor and rich countries. The date is set to mark the founding of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), on May 17, 1865, which is apparently using the day to promote a new role for itself. The U.N. also observes World Development Information Day (Oct. 24).

*World Book and Copyright Day (April 23). This is a big day in the history of literary birthdays and deaths. William Shakespeare and Miguel De Cervantes both died on April 23, 1616, and Vladimir Nabokov is said to be born on the same date in 1899. The commemoration, which is managed by UNESCO, is aimed at promoting interest in books, but I’m not quite sure I understand the reference to copyright. See if you have better luck.

*The International Year of Natural Fibers (2009). Acrylic, nylon, polyester are rapidly replacing the natural fibers — including sheep hair, hemp, coconut husk and cotton — that for thousands of years have created the rope, fabric and other materials so essential to human life.  The fashions might be so last year, but the U.N. has decided to honor them.

*World Mental Health Day (Oct. 10). Spend enough time trying to observe all the U.N. commemorative dates and you will begin to appreciate this one.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch


Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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