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‘Calendar Propaganda’ of Human Rights? Historical Perspectives on the United Nations’ Global Observances

  • Thomas G. Weiss (The Graduate Center, CUNY)
  • Marie-Benedicte Dembour (University of Brighton)
  • Steven L.B. Jensen (The Danish Institute for Human Rights)
Wednesday 14 June 2017 - Friday 16 June 2017
Turfmarkt 99
2511 DP The Hague

Keynote speakers

  • Professor Thomas G. Weiss (The Graduate Center, CUNY)
  • Professor Marie-Benedicte Dembour (University of Brighton)
  • Dr. Steven L.B. Jensen (The Danish Institute for Human Rights)

What does the UN seek to achieve though global observance days, weeks and years, and how have these initiatives impacted the role of the organization in forwarding the agenda of human rights?

This conference seeks to determine what the UN has sought to accomplish through observances, how do these initiatives bring stakeholders together and are they successful in establishing benchmarks and stimulating global agendas on a range of rights and development issues.

Since 1959, starting with the World Refugee Year, the United Nations have observed international days, weeks, years and decades which have been dedicated to a variety of causes. Among them have been women, disabled people, anti-apartheid, drinking water and more recently the Kyrgyz statehood, the gorilla, microcredit and quinoa. Typically, these events have sought to promote awareness of and encourage (inter)national action on fundamental issues related to human rights, social justice, cultural heritage and environmental problems. In addition to the UN itself, its specialized agencies, such as UNICEF, UNESCO, WHO, ILO and UNHCR were also involved in the activities. Numerous NGOs, churches, multinational corporations and a myriad of international organizations, interest groups, celebrities and activists made a contribution. Moreover, member states were also expected to become engaged, and they often formed national and regional committees for that purpose. Over time these observances have become an integral part of the UN’s institutional identity, a pillar of its advocacy of human rights and an indication of how the organization tries to connect the role of the various stakeholders with public opinion.

Despite their pivotal role in conveying UN’s mission, the dynamics and impact international days, weeks, years and decades have not been subject of a more comprehensive historical study. The conference seeks to embrace the multifarious potentials that a longue durée study of this subject can offer. For one thing, the UN Observances provide a useful new lens through which to (critically) revisit the UN’s major agendas and dilemmas, interactions with various international bodies and member states, its successes and failures, be they for example peacekeeping, combating discrimination or the eradication of poverty. How did these days, weeks, years and decades contribute (or not) to internationalizing and propagating the UN’s agenda? Did the accompanying non-binding resolutions instigate the development of new paradigms/agendas or did they merely create unrealistic expectations?

Preliminary Programme

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