This article explores the diplomatic contestations over children’s rights in connection to the International Year of the Child (iyc) of 1979. At the time, the Year was celebrated as an outstanding success, an event which helped to heighten social and political awareness of the status of children in both developing and industrialized countries, and which brought to light a plethora of new global issues, including street children, children with disabilities and children in armed conflict. Today, the iyc is frequently reduced to a plotting point in histories charting the rise of an international discourse of children’s rights, a discourse that is intimately linked to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989. This article shows how the concept of children’s rights was of peripheral importance to the overarching purposes of the iyc, which instead revolved around a notion of child welfare as integral to wider projects of social and economic development, either in the form of economic sovereignty or basic needs. The article then revisits the 1978–1979 UN debates on a human rights treaty for children, showing how this project initially garnered minimal support among states, international agencies and non-state actors. The article thus takes issue with teleological accounts that see the iyc primarily as a first step toward the subsequent breakthrough of children’s human rights. It also showcases how historical case studies of UN observances can be fruitful for scholars interested in the clashes and amalgamations of competing concepts and projects at an international level.
When the United Nations proclaimed 1968 to be the International Year of Human Rights, the official goal was to promote the adoption of the recently created human rights Covenants around the world. Instead of compelling the Eastern Bloc to accept liberal democratic conceptions of rights, however, it acted as a catalyst for the genesis of state socialist conceptions of human rights. Eastern Bloc elites claimed these rights were superior to those in the West, which they argued was beset by imperialism and racism. Although some within Eastern Europe used the Year as an opportunity to challenge state socialist regimes from within, the UN commemoration gave socialist elites a new language to legitimize the status quo in Eastern Europe and to call for radical anti-imperialism abroad. While dissent in the name of human rights in 1968 was limited, the state socialist embrace of human rights politics provided a crucial step towards the Helsinki Accords of 1975 and the subsequent rise of human rights activism behind the Iron Curtain.
This article argues that writing longer, deeper and wider histories of UN observances can help to push forward the historiography of international organizations, and to overcome global-local dichotomies in writing about international interventions in the Global South. To make this point, it uses one historical case study: the International Year of Disabled Persons (iydp) in 1981 and how it played out in Kenya. The main argument is that this UN observance did not bring about “global” approaches that stood in stark contrast to “local” ways of dealing with disability. Writing a longer history shows how the approaches promoted during the iydp can be traced back to late colonialism; a deeper history shows how this event played out on the ground, rather than on an abstract global level; and a wider history lays bare the broad range of actors involved beyond “the UN.”
The article argues that more thorough scholarly engagement with the United Nations’ international days has the potential for expanding the scope of diplomatic histories. It first provides a taxonomy of UN years by illuminating their repertoire, dynamics and peculiarities. Next, it discusses instances of how UN days are communicated to the public, emphasizing the role of media and celebrity diplomacy. Subsequently, the article demonstrates the crucial contribution of ngos, policy makers, and professionals who, as “outside-insiders” form the “Third UN.” Lastly, the article advances the argument that in order to obtain a more comprehensive account of UN days, another group of actors should be identified. These are comprised of organizations and individuals who are complete outsiders, but nevertheless contribute to the UN’s “marketplace of ideas” – a group that may be designated the “Fourth UN.”
This introduction to a special issue about the United Nations’ observances (days, weeks, years, decades) explores how scholarly engagement with UN observances may provide fresh perspectives on diplomatic history. The introduction discusses the origins of these observances and the limited historiographical attention they have received. It argues that observances need to be conceptualized and historicized as “diplomatic scripts.” This approach helps to understand how the UN has functioned as a diplomatic platform and how the UN, especially since the 1970s, has been used by a broad range of diplomats in different locations and with different agendas. It highlights the diversity of diplomatic activity beyond the state-to-state model and uncovers actors and processes that have stood in the shadow of well-known diplomatic events and developments. The last part of the introduction provides a short overview of this special issue.