In the wake of the Second World War, a UN conference was convened in London, in the global headquarters of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), to create an organisation that would bring global peace and security by means of moral and intellectual solidarity.
In a defining moment during the London Conference, British Prime Minister Clement Atlee asked, ‘Do not all wars begin in the minds of men?’ The effect of this was immediate and his words, now enshrined in the Organisation preamble, continue to inspire UNESCO’s work today.
The UK continued to play an instrumental role in the early development of UNESCO. Sir Julian Huxley, Nobel Prize winning biologist and UNESCO’s first Director General, along with fellow British Scientist Dr Joseph Needham, first Assistant Director of UNESCO and responsible for Natural Science programme, wanted to create an intergovernmental organisation that enhanced scientific capabilities worldwide.
In 1946 Huxley published ‘UNESCO: Its Purpose and Its Philosophy’, insisting that both Science and Communication & Information must be included as part of UNESCO’s work.
‘The more united man’s tradition becomes,’ he wrote, ‘the more rapid will be the possibility of progress: several separate or competing or even mutually hostile pools of tradition cannot possibly be as efficient as a single pool common to all mankind.’ His petition was successful. Science and Communication & Information became part of the four central tenets of UNESCO.
Development in all these areas is managed by UNESCO’s four distinctive functions: to act as a laboratory of ideas, a clearing house, standard-setter, capacity-builder, and catalyst for international cooperation. These roles have sustained the organisation since 1945, successfully guiding UNESCO through changing global currents over the last 70 years.
Today UNESCO remains the only UN agency to have a global network of independent national cooperating bodies, called ‘National Commissions’ mandated by Article 7 of the Constitution. After a brief time apart the UK rejoined UNESCO in 1997, reinstating the importance UK National Commission for UNESCO nationally and internationally.
Today UNESCO and its values have a strong presence in the UK. From UNESCO Chairs to UNESCO World Heritage Sites to its inaugural Creative Cities, UNESCO is more a part of our lives in the UK than many people realise.