The United Nations (UN) is an intergovernmental organization tasked to promote international cooperation and to create and maintain international order. A replacement for the ineffective League of Nations, the organization was established on October 24, 1945, after World War II in order to prevent another such conflict. At its founding, the UN had 51 member states; there are now 193. The headquarters of the United Nations is in Manhattan, New York City, and experiences extraterritoriality. Further main offices are situated in Geneva, Nairobi, and Vienna. The United Nations Postal Administration (UNPA) is the postal agency of the UN. It issues postage stamps and postal stationery, denominated in United States dollars for its offices in New York, in Swiss francs for the offices in Geneva and in euros (formerly schillings) for the offices in Vienna. Postage rates charged are identical to those of the host nation.
The organization is financed by assessed and voluntary contributions from its member states. Its objectives include maintaining international peace and security, promoting human rights, fostering social and economic development, protecting the environment, and providing humanitarian aid in cases of famine, natural disaster, and armed conflict. The United Nations is the largest, most familiar, most internationally represented and most powerful intergovernmental organization in the world.
The UN Charter was drafted at a conference between April–June 1945 in San Francisco, and was signed on June 26, 1945, at the conclusion of the conference; this charter took effect on October 24, 1945, and the United Nations began operations. The UN’s mission to preserve world peace was complicated in its early decades by the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union and their respective allies. The organization participated in major actions in Korea and the Congo, as well as approving the creation of the state of Israel in 1947. The organization’s membership grew significantly following widespread decolonization in the 1960s, and by the 1970s its budget for economic and social development programs far outstripped its spending on peacekeeping. After the end of the Cold War, the UN took on major military and peacekeeping missions across the world with varying degrees of success.
The UN has six principal organs: the General Assembly (the main deliberative assembly); the Security Council (for deciding certain resolutions for peace and security); the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC; for promoting international economic and social co-operation and development); the Secretariat (for providing studies, information, and facilities needed by the UN); the International Court of Justice (the primary judicial organ); and the UN Trusteeship Council (inactive since 1994). UN System agencies include the World Bank Group, the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme, UNESCO, and UNICEF. The UN’s most prominent officer is the Secretary-General, an office held by Portuguese António Guterres since 2017. Non-governmental organizations may be granted consultative status with ECOSOC and other agencies to participate in the UN’s work.
The organization won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, and a number of its officers and agencies have also been awarded the prize. Other evaluations of the UN’s effectiveness have been mixed. Some commentators believe the organization to be an important force for peace and human development, while others have called the organization ineffective, corrupt, or biased.
In the century prior to the UN’s creation, several international treaty organizations and conferences had been formed to regulate conflicts between nations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. Following the catastrophic loss of life in the First World War, the Paris Peace Conference established the League of Nations to maintain harmony between countries. This organization resolved some territorial disputes and created international structures for areas such as postal mail, aviation, and opium control, some of which would later be absorbed into the UN. However, the League lacked representation for colonial peoples (then half the world’s population) and significant participation from several major powers, including the US, USSR, Germany, and Japan; it failed to act against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the Second Italo-Ethiopian War in 1935, the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, and German expansions under Adolf Hitler that culminated in the Second World War.
The earliest concrete plan for a new world organization began under the aegis of the United States State Department in 1939. The text of the “Declaration by United Nations” was drafted by President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins, while meeting at the White House on December 29, 1941. It incorporated Soviet suggestions, but left no role for France. “Four Policemen” was coined to refer to four major Allied countries, United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and China, which emerged in the Declaration by United Nations. Roosevelt first coined the term United Nations to describe the Allied countries. “On New Year’s Day 1942, President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, Maxim Litvinov, of the USSR, and T. V. Soong, of China, signed a short document which later came to be known as the United Nations Declaration and the next day the representatives of twenty-two other nations added their signatures.” The term United Nations was first officially used when 26 governments signed this Declaration. One major change from the Atlantic Charter was the addition of a provision for religious freedom, which Stalin approved after Roosevelt insisted. By March 1, 1945, 21 additional states had signed.
“A JOINT DECLARATION BY THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, THE UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND, THE UNION OF SOVIET SOCIALIST REPUBLICS, CHINA, AUSTRALIA, BELGIUM, CANADA, COSTA RICA, CUBA, CZECHOSLOVAKIA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC, EL SALVADOR, GREECE, GUATEMALA, HAITI, HONDURAS, INDIA, LUXEMBOURG, NETHERLANDS, NEW ZEALAND, NICARAGUA, NORWAY, PANAMA, POLAND, SOUTH AFRICA, YUGOSLAVIA
“The Governments signatory hereto,
“Having subscribed to a common program of purposes and principles embodied in the Joint Declaration of the President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister of Great Britain dated August 14, 1941, known as the Atlantic Charter,
“Being convinced that complete victory over their enemies is essential to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands, and that they are now engaged in a common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world,
“Each Government pledges itself to employ its full resources, military or economic, against those members of the Tripartite Pact and its adherents with which such government is at war.
Each Government pledges itself to cooperate with the Governments signatory hereto and not to make a separate armistice or peace with the enemies.
The foregoing declaration may be adhered to by other nations which are, or which may be, rendering material assistance and contributions in the struggle for victory over Hitlerism.“
— The Washington Conference 1941–1942
During the war, “the United Nations” became the official term for the Allies. To join, countries had to sign the Declaration and declare war on the Axis.
The UN was formulated and negotiated among the delegations from the Allied Big Four (the Soviet Union, the UK, the US, and China) at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in 1944. After months of planning, the UN Conference on International Organization opened in San Francisco, April 25, 1945, attended by 50 governments and a number of non-governmental organizations involved in drafting the UN Charter. “The heads of the delegations of the sponsoring countries took turns as chairman of the plenary meetings: Anthony Eden, of Britain, Edward Stettinius, of the United States, T. V. Soong, of China, and Vyacheslav Molotov, of the Soviet Union. At the later meetings, Lord Halifax deputized for Mr. Eden, Wellington Koo for T. V. Soong, and Mr Gromyko for Mr. Molotov.” The United Nations officially came into existence on October 24, 1945, upon ratification of the Charter by the five permanent members of the Security Council — France, the Republic of China, the Soviet Union, the UK and the US — and by a majority of the other 46 signatories.
The first meetings of the General Assembly, with 51 nations represented, and the Security Council took place in London beginning January 6, 1946. The General Assembly selected New York City as the site for the headquarters of the UN, and the facility was completed in 1952. Its site — like UN headquarters buildings in Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi — is designated as international territory. The Norwegian Foreign Minister, Trygve Lie, was elected as the first UN Secretary-General.
The headquarters of the United Nations is a complex in New York City designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. The complex has served as the official headquarters of the United Nations since its completion in 1952. It is located in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of Manhattan, on spacious grounds overlooking the East River. Its borders are First Avenue on the west, East 42nd Street to the south, East 48th Street on the north and the East River to the east. The term “Turtle Bay” is occasionally used as a metonym for the UN headquarters or for the United Nations as a whole.
The United Nations has three additional, subsidiary, regional headquarters, or headquarters districts. These were opened in Geneva (Switzerland) in 1946, Vienna (Austria) in 1980, and Nairobi (Kenya) in 1996. These adjunct offices help represent UN interests, facilitate diplomatic activities, and enjoy certain extraterritorial privileges, but only the main headquarters in New York City contains the seats of the principal organs of the UN, including the General Assembly and Security Council.
All fifteen of the United Nations’ specialized agencies are located outside New York City at these other headquarters or in other cities — the Food and Agriculture Organization and International Fund for Agricultural Development in Rome, the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal, the International Labour Organization, International Telecommunication Union, World Health Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization, World Trade Organization and World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, the International Maritime Organization in London, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group in Washington, D.C., the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization in Vienna, the United Nation Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific in Bangkok, Thailand and the World Tourism Organization in Madrid.
Although it is situated in New York City, the land occupied by the United Nations Headquarters and the spaces of buildings that it rents are under the sole administration of the United Nations and not the U.S. government. They are technically extraterritorial through a treaty agreement with the U.S. government. However, in exchange for local police, fire protection and other services, the United Nations agrees to acknowledge most local, state, and federal laws.
The United Nations Headquarters complex was constructed in stages with the core complex completed between 1948 and 1952. The Headquarters occupies a site beside the East River, on between 17 and 18 acres (6.9 and 7.3 hectares) of land purchased from the real estate developer, William Zeckendorf, Sr. Nelson Rockefeller arranged this purchase, after an initial offer to locate it on the Rockefeller family estate of Kykuit was rejected as being too isolated from Manhattan. The U.S. $8.5 million (adjusted by inflation U.S. $84.7 million) purchase was then funded by his father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who donated it to the city. The Rockefeller family owned the Tudor City Apartments across First Avenue from the site. Wallace Harrison, the personal architectural adviser for the Rockefeller family and brother-in-law to a Rockefeller daughter, served as the Director of Planning for the United Nations Headquarters. His firm, Harrison and Abramovitz, oversaw the execution of the design.
The site of the UN headquarters has extraterritoriality status. This affects some law enforcement where UN rules override the laws of New York City, but it does not give immunity to those who commit crimes there. In addition, the United Nations Headquarters remains under the jurisdiction and laws of the United States, although a few members of the UN staff have diplomatic immunity and so cannot be prosecuted by local courts unless the diplomatic immunity is waived by the Secretary-General. In 2005, Secretary-General Kofi Annan waived the immunity of Benon Sevan, Aleksandr Yakovlev, and Vladimir Kuznetsov in relation to the Oil-for-Food Programme, and all were charged in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Benon Sevan later fled the United States to Cyprus, while Aleksandr Yakovlev and Vladimir Kuznetsov decided to stand trial.
The currency in use at the United Nations headquarters’ businesses is the U.S. dollar. The UN’s stamps are issued in denominations of the U.S. dollar. U.S. postal rates must be followed.
The United Nations identifies Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish as its six official languages. Delegates speaking in any of these languages will have their words simultaneously translated into all of the others, and attendees are provided with headphones through which they can hear the translations. A delegate is allowed to make a statement in a non-official language, but must provide either an interpreter or a written copy of his/her remarks translated into an official language. English and French are the working languages of the United Nations Secretariat, as most of the daily communication within the Secretariat and most of the signs in the UN headquarters building are in those languages.
The complex has a street address of United Nations Headquarters, New York, NY 10017, USA. For security reasons, all mail sent to this address is sterilized, so items that may be degraded can be sent by courier. The United Nations Postal Administration issues stamps, which must be used on stamped mail sent from the building. Journalists, when reporting from the complex, often use “United Nations” rather than “New York City” as the identification of their location in recognition of the extraterritoriality status.
For award purposes, amateur radio operators consider the UN headquarters a separate “entity” under some award programs such as DXCC. For communications, UN organizations have their own internationally recognized ITU prefix, 4U. However, only contacts made with the UN Headquarters in New York, and the ITU count as separate entities. Other UN organizations such as the World Bank count for the state or country they are located in. The UN Staff Recreation Council operates amateur radio station 4U1UN, and occasionally use special call signs with prefix 4U and ending in UN to commemorate various events at the UN.
The complex includes a number of major buildings. While the Secretariat building is most predominantly featured in depictions of the headquarters, it also includes the domed General Assembly building, the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, as well as the Conference and Visitors Center, which is situated between the General Assembly and Secretariat buildings, and can be seen only from FDR Drive or the East River. Just inside the perimeter fence of the complex stands a line of flagpoles where the flags of all 193 UN member states, plus the UN flag, are flown in English alphabetical order.
The General Assembly building, housing the United Nations General Assembly, holds the General Assembly Hall which has a seating capacity of 1,800. At 165 feet (50 meters) long by 115 feet (35 m) wide, it is the largest room in the complex. The Hall has two murals by the French artist Fernand Léger. At the front of the chamber, is the rostrum containing the green marble desk for the President of the General Assembly, Secretary-General and Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services and matching lectern for speakers. Behind the rostrum is the UN emblem on a gold background. Flanking the rostrum is a paneled semi-circular wall that tapers as it nears the ceiling and surrounds the front portion of the chamber. In front of the paneled walls are seating areas for guests and within the wall are windows which allow translators to watch the proceedings as they work. The ceiling of the hall is 75 feet (23 m) high and surmounted by a shallow dome ringed by recessed light fixtures. The entrance to the hall bears an inscription from the Gulistan by Iranian poet Saadi. The General Assembly Hall was last altered in 1980 when capacity was increased to accommodate the increased membership. Each of the 192 delegations has six seats in the hall with three at a desk and three alternate seats behind them.
The Conference Building faces the East River between the General Assembly Building and the Secretariat. The Conference Building holds the Security Council Chamber, which was a gift from Norway and was designed by the Norwegian architect Arnstein Arneberg. The oil canvas mural depicting a phoenix rising from its ashes by Norwegian artist Per Krogh hangs at the front of the room.
The 39-story Secretariat Building was completed in 1952. It houses offices for the Secretary General, the Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and United Nations Legal Counsel, the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Office of Disarmament Affairs, and the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM).
The library was founded with the United Nations in 1946. It was originally called the United Nations Library, later the United Nations International Library. In the late 1950s, the Ford Foundation gave a grant to the United Nations for the construction of a new library building, Dag Hammarskjöld was also instrumental in securing the funding for the new building. The Dag Hammarskjöld Library was dedicated and renamed on November 16, 1961. The building was a gift from the Ford Foundation and is located next to the Secretariat at the southwest corner of the headquarters campus. The library holds 400,000 books, 9,800 newspapers and periodical titles, 80,000 maps and the Woodrow Wilson Collection containing 8,600 volumes of League of Nations documents and 6,500 related books and pamphlets. The library’s Economic and Social Affairs Collection is housed in the DC-2 building.
The complex is also notable for its gardens and outdoor sculptures. Iconic sculptures include the “Knotted Gun”, called Non-Violence, a statue of a Colt Python revolver with its barrel tied in a knot, which was a gift from the Luxembourg government and “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares”, a gift from the Soviet Union. The latter sculpture is the only appearance of the “swords into plowshares” quotation, from Isaiah 2:4, within the complex. Contrary to popular belief, the quotation is not carved on any UN building. Rather, it is carved on the “Isaiah Wall” of Ralph Bunche Park across First Avenue. A piece of the Berlin Wall also stands in the UN garden.
Other prominent artworks on the grounds include a Marc Chagall stained glass window memorializing the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the Japanese Peace Bell which is rung on the vernal equinox and the opening of each General Assembly session, a Chinese ivory carving made in 1974 (before the ivory trade was largely banned in 1989), and a Venetian mosaic depicting Norman Rockwell’s painting The Golden Rule. A full-size tapestry copy of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica by Jacqueline de la Baume Dürrbach is on the wall of the United Nations building at the entrance to the Security Council room. In 1952, two Léger murals were installed in the General Assembly Hall. The works are meant to merely be decorative with no symbolism. One is said to resemble cartoon character Bugs Bunny and U.S. President Harry S. Truman dubbed the other work Scrambled Eggs.
Two huge murals by Brazilian artist Cândido Portinari, entitled Guerra e Paz (War and Peace) are located at the delegates hall. The works are a gift from the United Nations Association of the United States of America and Portinari intended to execute them in the United States. However, he was denied a visa due to his communist convictions and decided to paint them in Rio de Janeiro. They were later assembled in the headquarters. After their completion in 1957, Portinari, who was already ill when he started the masterpiece, succumbed to lead poisoning from the pigments his doctors advised him to abandon.
The idea for the United Nations to issue stamps originated in 1947 with José Arce the ambassador from Argentina and president of the United Nations General Assembly, who was himself a philatelist. The League of Nations had used overprinted Swiss stamps. The United Nations Postal Administration came into existence by agreement with the United States in 1951, soon after the UN moved into its headquarters in Manhattan. Prior to that, the UN used the facilities of the United States Post Office Department.
Ordinarily, mail must be taken to the UN offices and franked with the appropriate UN stamps. From time to time, though, by agreement with the United States Postal Service, the UNPA maintains a temporary office elsewhere, usually at stamp shows or special events.
The UNPA issued its first stamps for the New York offices in 1951 (Scott #1-11). There was intense collector interest in the early issues, and a million stamps or more were sold of many of the early commemoratives. The scarcest item from this period, although still quite affordable, is the UN 10th anniversary souvenir sheet (Scott #38), of which 250,000 were printed. A precancel of the first 1½-cent stamp that was used on a number of mass mailings has been extensively forged.
By 1957, the UNPA’s commemoratives regularly sold out, though they might take several months to do so. Faced with this success, officials increased print runs from the usual million stamps to as many as five million. Surprisingly, sales increased tremendously, and sales of each commemorative stamp remained in the 1.5 to 3 million range through the 1970s.
In 1967, the UNPA issued five stamps in Canadian dollar denominations for use at the United Nations pavilion at Expo 1967 in Montreal (Scott #170-174). They became invalid when Expo closed.
In 1968, the UNPA made an agreement with Swiss postal authorities, and on October 4, 1969 began to issue stamps in franc denominations for use at the Geneva offices. A 1979 agreement with Austria led to similar stamps for Vienna.
There was a resurgence of interest in United Nations stamps in the 1970s, which may have peaked with the almost immediate sellout of the panes of 20 issued for the UNPA’s 25th anniversary — three of the four denominations sold out on the date of issue (October 8, 1976); the fourth sold out within two and a half months. A similar issue, in 1979, for the International Year of the Child sold out on the day of issue. The story made the front page of The New York Times. In 1980, the first of an annual series depicting members’ national flags sold nearly 3.5 million of each individual stamp.
In 1981, interest began to diminish after controversy erupted concerning the UNPA’s issuance of stamps for the “Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People” (Scott #343 for New York, Geneva #98 and Vienna #17). The proposal for issuance, and the issuance itself, was extensively and critically covered by The New York Times and by Linn’s Stamp News. The fifteen-cent denomination for the New York office became the first UNPA stamp since 1954 to sell fewer than a million copies when more than a million were printed. By 1983, many more stamps were selling fewer than a million copies, though sales of Vienna stamps remained strong. In 1986, the souvenir sheet for the World Federation of United Nations Associations became the first issue to sell fewer than a half-million copies where at least that many were printed in UNPA history.
In an effort to increase sales, the UNPA used a combination of smaller printings of stamps, aggressive marketing, and having famous artists create stamp designs. Still, stamp sales have never recovered to previous levels and today print runs are on the order of 400,000 stamps. Due to these lower printing quantities, the stamps from the late 1990s and 2000s are harder to find on the discount postage market. Although it is rare, some issues have sold out. The most notable of regularly issued United Nations stamps is the 2005 General Assembly 60th Anniversary souvenir sheet, of the one dollar denomination, which is currently being sold by stamp dealers for more than 10 times its original face value (Scott #875).
In 2003, the UN Postal Administration began issuing “personalized” sheets for New York. These sheets have ten or twenty stamps and a large decorative border, with a tab to the right of each stamp. Visitors to the UN Headquarters in New York can go to a kiosk where a personal picture can be printed onto a sheet with blank tabs. Most “personalized” sheets are produced for stamp shows and specific UN events with related designs already printed on the tabs. Truly personalized sheets rarely reach the secondary market.
The UN Post Offices in Geneva and Vienna began offering this type of sheet in 2009. Two sheets were produced in 2007 and two in 2008 denominated in euros. The editors of the Scott Catalogue question whether they were ever actually sold at the UN Post Office in Vienna, a primary criterion for recognizing them as a legitimate postal issue. Scott lists them as footnotes without assigned catalog numbers.
A recent controversy concerns the 2003 purchase by one organization of the UNPA’s entire postal archive, including original artwork and artist’s proofs. Apparently this was to raise money for the UNPA, and it may have netted the organization about $2.5 million. However, there have been serious allegations that improper procedures approving the sale were followed. Also, resale of items at several times their initial values have apparently occurred, thus raising more questions about the entire matter. As of 2006 the issue remains under internal UN investigation.
Only United Nations stamps in the appropriate currency may be used at a given United Nations office. In practice, however, most UN agencies use meters, and the stamps are most often used by tourists and collectors. Since the stamps may not be used outside the UN offices, they may be purchased in bulk on the secondary market as discount postage at well below face value.
On September 4, 2007, the UNPA posted on its web page new rules limiting the mailings it will accept. Express mail and Priority Mail are no longer available to the public, and mailings from the public are limited to 100 pieces. The UNPA stated that the reason for this is that it was not established to provide all postal services, and that its primary function was to issue stamps for philatelic purposes.
The UNPA continues to issue stamps, including personalized stamps. It is responsible also for sorting and delivery of mail to the offices under its jurisdiction.
Two stamps were issued by the New York office on March 13, 1970, portraying the Japanese Peace Bell. These were designed by Ole Hamann of Denmark as part of the United Nations Postal Administration’s Art at the United Nations series. The stamps were printed by the Government Printing Bureau of Tokyo using the photogravure process and were perforated 13½ x 13. The 6-cent stamp (Scott #203) has a violet blue frame while the 25-cent denomination (Scott #204) has a frame that is claret in color.
The Japanese Peace Bell is a United Nations peace symbol, a gift of the people of Japan in 1954 cast from donated coins and medals. Cast on November 24, 1952, it was presented to the United Nations by the United Nations Association of Japan on June 8, 1954. The symbolic bell of peace was donated by Japan to the United Nations at a time when Japan had not yet been officially admitted to the United Nations. The Japanese Peace Bell is housed in a Japanese cypress wooden structure resembling a traditional Shinto shrine at UN Headquarters in New York. The whole structure is supported by a base of stone donated by Israel.
The Tada Factory in Japan completed the bell on United Nations Day. It was cast by Chiyoji Nakagawa, and was modeled on the Banzai Bell of Peace that he created for Uwajima Temple. Nakagawa subsequently founded the World Peace Bell Association. The bell went briefly to Osaka, Japan as part of Osaka Expo 70 and was later returned to its permanent location in New York City at 42nd Street and First Avenue, inside UN territory grounds.
Renzo Sawada, the United Nations Japanese Observer, presented the bell to the United Nations Organization. At the time of the presentation, Sawada commented that “The bell embodies the aspiration for peace not only of the Japanese but of the peoples of the entire world. Thus it symbolized the universality of the United Nations.”
The bell weighs 256 pounds (116 kilograms), with a height of 3 feet, 3 inches (1 meter), and a 2-foot (0.6-meter) diameter at the base. The metal in the bell itself was obtained from coins donated by delegates of 60 nations who were attending the 13th General Conference of United Nations Associations held in Paris, France in 1951. The coins were collected from the delegates by children.
Inscribed on one side of the bell are the Japanese characters 世界絶対平和萬歳 (“Long live absolute world peace”).
A wooden hammer was presented to the United Nations in 1977. A bell cord blessed by a Shinto priests was also presented to the United Nations on Earth Day, March 20, 1990.
Traditionally, the Japanese Peace Bell is rung twice a year. It is tolled on the first day of Spring at the time of the vernal equinox, in celebration of the annual Earth Day ceremony initiated by Earth Day Founder, John McConnell. It is also rung on every opening day of the UN General Assembly’s yearly session in September, coinciding with the International Day of Peace established by the General Assembly in 1981. This occasion is observed by the Secretary-General.
The bell was also tolled on October 4, 1966 during the Feast Day of St. Francis, marking the one year anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s official visit to the United Nations. It is infrequently tolled on other special occasions.