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Observances

Observances of the International and National Days

International days predate the establishment of the United Nations, but the UN has embraced them as a powerful advocacy tool. The United Nations observes specific days, weeks, years, and decades, each with a different theme or topic. The United Nations raises international awareness and action on these issues by establishing special observances. Each international day provides numerous actors with the opportunity to organize activities centered on the day’s theme. Organizations and offices of the United Nations system, as well as, most importantly, governments, civil society, the public and private sectors, schools, universities, and citizens in general, use an international day to launch awareness-raising campaigns. Although some observances have been designated by UN specialised agencies, the majority have been established by resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly. The United Nations also commemorates important historical events.

Who chooses International Days, and how?

It is constantly related to the core areas of operation of the UN, which include maintaining international peace and security, promoting long-term development, protecting human rights, and upholding international law and humanitarian action.

The General Assembly usually explains why it declared the International Day in its resolutions. For example, in declaring May 23 as the International Day for the Eradication of Obstetric Fistula, the resolution cited “the interlinkages between poverty, malnutrition, a lack of or inadequate or inaccessible health-care services, early childbearing, child marriage, violence against young women and girls, and gender discrimination as root causes of obstetric fistula, and that poverty remains the main social risk factor.”

Many people may have never heard of this disease, which causes some of the most devastating injuries that can occur during childbirth, even though it affects approximately two million women in developing countries, and between 50,000 and 100,000 new cases occur each year. This is an excellent example of the critical awareness-raising work that International Days perform.

Furthermore, given that the Assembly is made up of 193 countries, or the majority of the world’s states, this UN body points out in its resolutions which aspects of the problem are of the most concern to the UN Member States – or, in other words, to humanity as a whole. A good example is a resolution designating June 23 as International Widows’ Day, in which the General Assembly expresses its “deep concern that millions of children of widows face situations of hunger, malnutrition, child labour, difficult access to health care, water and sanitation, loss of schooling, illiteracy, and human trafficking.”

Some international days are declared not by the General Assembly, but by United Nations specialised agencies to draw public attention to issues within their areas of expertise, such as health, aviation, intellectual property, and so on. For example, World Press Freedom Day, observed on May 3, was declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris and later adopted by the General Assembly.

In addition to raising awareness, the UN uses these Days to advise States on actions to address the serious issues that many of these dates revolve around. For example, on the International Day of Biological Diversity, May 22, the Organization invites its Member States to sign and ratify the Cartagena Protocol on the Protection of Biological Diversity.

How does the UN assess the impact of these Days?

The International Days also serve as a gauge of the level of interest in a particular subject in different parts of the world. To find out, we examine the level of participation in these commemorations across the world in various regions and languages. The International Day of Human Rights, which takes place on December 10, is a case in point. This Day is observed all over the world, with initiatives ranging from military and police officers in South Sudan trading guns for running shoes to a student competition in Russia and a display in Brazil. Overall, a large number of people from various walks of life participate in some way in the celebration of this special day.

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