A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Day by day, year on year, the UN circles the world calendar

One focuses on toilet habits, another on missing persons. They are as flip as TV and as worthy as saving migratory birds. They occur on 118 different days of the year — one every three days on average — and sometimes several causes can lay claim to the same day. Some get a whole week, or a year or even a decade. Sally Stewart wonders whether International Days have reached their use-by date?

Words by Sally Stewart

1.     Who decides which days will be International Days and how do you get one?

The United Nations is responsible. On October 24, 1948, it named its own birthday ‘United Nations Day’ and an idea was born.

The UN came from a world worn out by war. Its aim was noble: to bring peace and social justice to future generations. The first International Day it declared was Human Rights Day on December 10, 1950, now the date on which day the Nobel Peace Prize is announced.

Although not always united, the UN is certainly international. All nations belong except the two recognised non-member states, Palestine and the Holy See. Two-thirds of the 193 UN nations are developing countries.

More than 250,000 people work for the UN across the world, many in its specialist agencies with their familiar acronyms: UNESCO, WHO and the ILO. These agencies pitch to the UN General Assembly through a committee process for permission to label particular days. All nations can have a say, voting ‘yes’or ‘no’ to proposed name days with decisions made on a two-thirds majority. 

Boiled down, the process of designating a particular Day is as simple as that.

Nearly all International Days are on set dates. For example, World Refugee Day is always on June 20 but some are observances — World Maritime Day is observed on any day in the last week of September. Here’s the full list.

2.     What is the point of the International Days?

“World Meteorological Day on March 23 is an opportunity for the Bureau of Meteorology to highlight its work in Australia,” says Danita Matusch, the Bureau’s national media manager. 

The only World Meteorological Centre in the southern hemisphere is based in Melbourne. Since 1950 the Bureau has worked closely with the World Meteorological Organisation, a UN agency. It says its weather forecasting could not be done without the global sharing and rapid exchange of data through the WMO.   

“UN Days are useful as focal points to raise awareness of the work of relevant agencies,” argues Ms Matusch, a view echoed by the UN itself. The Days are “a useful means” to promote “international and national action and stimulate interest in United Nations’ activities”, according to its worthy dictum.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” — Article 1: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948.

Some declared Days celebrate a good thing while some raise awareness of a bad thing. But they can sound similar: World Radio Day on February 13 is a celebration, whereas World Rabies Day (September 28) is not. Explaining English Language Day, celebrated on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23, the UN says: “Because it is so widely spoken, English is often referred to as a ‘world language’, or the lingua franca of the modern era.”

Using a term derived from Italian, Old French, Greek, Arabic, Portuguese, Occitan and Spanish to define an International Day devoted to the English language epitomises perhaps the politically correct inclusivity of UN-speak. After all, every single UN-spoken or written word is translated into the six official UN languages: English, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese and French.  These languages each have their own National Day, not to overlook International Mother Language Day on February 21.

By their very nature, International Days draw the world closer and in 1998, the Internet giant Google jumped on the bandwagon. On August 30, it ran a quirky visual pun on its home page logo to mark the Burning Man Festival. This is an American art and community event held in Nevada. No explanation was given for Google’s decision, but it marked the beginnings of so-called Google Doodles. Every year since there have been more (and incrteasingly sophisticated) Doodles, which can now often include a game.

On November 22 last year, Google marked 50 years of Doctor Who with a game featuring 11 of the doctor incarnations dodging daleks and cybermen to gather all the letters in the word “Google”.  This was released everywhere across the world except in the United States where Google held it over until November 23, apparently in deference to the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. Asked why they had gone for Doctor Who instead of JFK, Google posted its Doodle policy:  “Google does not celebrate tragedy, Google celebrates great and/or whimsical things.”

3.     What do the International Days achieve?

“The effectiveness of a single day is almost impossible to measure,” says Ian Muchamore, president of Living Positive Victoria, a Melbourne-based charity working with people who are living with HIV and AIDS.

“But December 1 as World AIDS Day is a well-recognised date with the red ribbon,” he says. “It probably goes back to the massive media coverage in the 1980s and 90s especially through Freddie Mercury [who died from AIDS in 1991].

“The real power of World AIDS Day for us is reaching out to organisations outside the sector as well as helping to challenge social barriers like stigma and discrimination. Having AIDS in parts of the world without access to health services is very real. It’s also an impetus for advocacy work and has partly been a driver for the World AIDS Congress being held in Melbourne [in July].”


The Brotherhood of St Laurence, a Victorian charity working to prevent poverty, also finds the International Days useful vehicles to publicise its work. “We have no formal connection with International Youth Day on August 12 or the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on October 17,” says Sally James, senior manager (youth transitions) at the Brotherhood, whose own work focuses on young people aged between 12 and 24 affected by poverty. “But we are aware of the Days and we use them as advocacy opportunities,” she says.

“We are an influencing organisation and we can leverage the Days to release a report or highlight a particular policy issue,” she adds. “We do get coverage, we do get media exposure.”

Australia Post similarly has no formal connection with World Post Day on October 9, even though it represents Australia on the global Postal Operations Council. This is yet another UN agency which, as with weather forecasting, harnesses global co-operation to send mail around the world. Australia Post does not actively promote World Post Day either but says its shops are free to celebrate it should they choose.

4.     Are all the Days equal or are some more equal than others?

The motto of the UN is “It’s your world” and the International Days are meant to speak to the conscience of humankind. But treating, say, International Jazz Day (April 30) in similar fashion as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance (August 30) seems to defy common sense.

The UN, however, speaks of the three “pillars of well-being” for every person — the social, the economic and the environmental. Together, they make an inseparable whole. Based on this standard, the Days are equally valid and equally relevant to all.

Still, different causes can affect different regions differently. International Day for the Girl Child (October 11) has particular relevance for the Third World, aiming to end child marriage and give all girls equal access to education. Twenty-five countries from Bhutan to Ghana, Madagascar to Moldova held events to mark the day in 2013.  The Day also aimed to end gender inequality everywhere. 

The range of International Days underscores enduring inequalities in the world 68 years after the UN was founded. That the World Day Against Child Labour (June 12, first declared in 2002) and the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (November 25, and first declared in 1993) remain on the calendar says much about the painstaking nature of change.

World Toilet Day (November 19) has statistics shocking to First World people used to personal privacy: 1.1 billion people defecate in the open and one-in-three people “on this globe” do not have access to a toilet. The tag line encouraging people to get involved is refreshingly straightforward: “I give a shit because . . . ”

5.     Are there too many International Days?

Well, possibly. Especially as it’s not just a matter of Days now. Naming an entire year started in 1959, with the year of International World Refugees, an issue which seems just as relevant more than five decades later. Since then, the number of International Years has risen exponentially. There were four in the 1960s but by the noughties there were 30 (three a year) and since 2010, there have been eight. 

Some UN specialist agencies

WHO – World Health Organisation

UNESCO – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation

IMF – International Monetary Fund

WMO – World Meteorological Organisation

ILO – International Labour Organisation

FAO – Food and Agricultural Organisation

There are also declared Decades for international issues of deep complexity. The Decade for Sustainable Energy for All kicked off this year. Meanwhile, we are halfway through the Second UN Decade for the Eradication of Poverty.

Weeks are being earmarked, too. So far, there are eight UN International Weeks per year. Last month included a Week of Solidarity with the Peoples of Non Self-Governing Territories. World Breastfeeding Week is observed between August 1 and 7, followed by World Space Week (October 4 to 10) and Disarmament Week (October 24 to 30).

The sheer frequency of International Days may well blunt their perceived relevance and effectiveness, and lead to a kind of International Day ‘fatigue’.

Perhaps, as a foil to the serious issues raised by the designated Days, several unofficial calendars have sprung up on the Internet ‘celebrating’ trivial issues. A random trawl finds Lost Sock Memorial Day (May 9), Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19, celebrated in 40 countries and with a philanthropic focus), World Sauntering Day (August 28), Cranky Co-Workers Day (October 27) and so on.

Having your own personal Day might be something worth coveting, though only one person has made it thus far. Nelson Mandela International Day falls on July 18, his birthday. On unofficial calendars, Talk Like Shakespeare Day is on April 23 and October 16 has Steve Jobs’ name on it though it’s neither his birthday nor the anniversary of his death.

This day coincides with World Food Day, an International Day for the Food and Agricultural Organisation, a UN specialist agency based in Rome. In turn, the FAO this year is backing the International Year of Family Farming, while in 2013 it hung its hat on the International Year of Quinoa. If the growing ubiquity (at least in Australia) of this grain-like crop of edible seeds is anything to go by, awareness has indeed been raised!

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

  • Editor: Jo Chandler
  • Reporter: Jack Banister
  • Audio & Video editor: Louisa Lim
  • Data editor: Craig Butt
  • Editor-In-Chief: Andrew Dodd
  • Business editor: Lucy Smy
Winner — BEST PUBLICATION 2016 Ossie Awards