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History of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office

Guided by our principles, Unitarian Universalists (UUs) are called to advocate for international human rights; to be a voice for the voiceless by promoting the inherent worth and dignity of all living things.  The Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office has been raising our UU voices at the United Nations for over 50 years. 

Celebrating 50 years

In 2012 we honored our past 50 years and looked ahead to our future. We engage UU's of all ages and invite one and all to partake in celebrating the birthday of the United Nations Office. Each year we present an opportunity to congregations to hold a UN Sunday service. Holding this service and meeting 3 other criteria will allow your congregation the receive an award plaque honoring your Blue Ribbon Congregation status.  You can also submit your UN Sunday service sermon or address to win the Dana Greeley Award. This award is in honor of the first President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, whose quintessential support created the path where we are now 50 years down the road (and counting). 

Our History

The Unitarian Universalist Association's involvement in the United Nations can be traced to the early part of the 20th century. Both the Unitarians and the Universalists were active in the League of Nations Association and later closely monitored the creation of the United Nations. In 1946, the American Unitarian Association appointed Elvira Fradkin as an official delegate to the United Nations. In the 1950's, the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association adopted resolutions in support of the United Nations.

In 1956, Universalists and Unitarians convened the first annual UN Seminar at the Church Center. With the merger of the two denominations in 1961, the Unitarian Universalist Association formed an Advisory Committee on the United Nations. In 1963, the UUA Principles and Purposes were merged into one document with marked similarity to the United Nations Charter (1945) and to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

The founding of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office can be traced to April of 1962. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and a Unitarian, Adlai Stevenson wrote to UUA President Dana McLean Greeley suggesting that each UU congregation nominate an envoy.

Let me recommend to you the appointment of envoys in UU churches... to promote better knowledge and understanding of the United Nations. In this disastrous and shrinking world it is no longer possible—if it ever was—for local communities to be more secure than the surrounding world. Our ultimate security therefore lies in making the world more and more into a community.... All of you have the opportunity to share in the answer, and thus help us build a peaceful world.
—Adlai Stevenson

That same year, working out of a makeshift space at Community Church in New York City, the first members began implementing Ambassador Stevenson's recommendation. Elizabeth Swayzee, the first Executive Director, and Velva Sabin sent letters to UU congregations in the U.S. and Canada. By 1965, the network had grown to over 300 envoys. Today, more than 500 congregations have UU-UNO envoys ensuring their voice at the United Nations.

Beginning in 1946, all work by Unitarians and Universalists at the UN was conducted on a volunteer basis. From 1965 to 1970, the UUA allotted funds for UN activities, but in 1971, all financial support from the UUA ceased, and the UU United Nations Office incorporated as a separate non-profit organization. Until 2011, the Office’s funds have come mainly from individual and congregational contributions, along with significant support for several years from the Community Church of New York and the Veatch Foundation at the UU Church of Shelter Rock on Long Island, which sustained the Office at the Church Center. In July 2011, the UU United Nations Office rejoined the UUA under its International Resources Department and strengthened its formal relations with the Canadian Unitarian Council.

Today, the UU United Nations Office holds United Nations Economic Social and Cultural Committee (ECOSOC) consultative status and Department of Public Information Non-Governmental Organizations (DPI/NGO) status. On September 3, 2002, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan inaugurated the International Criminal Court, passing the gavel to the Assembly of States Parties. The first religious leaders to formally attend this historic ceremony were UUA President Rev. William Sinkford and Rev. Olivia Holmes, UUA Director of International Affairs and UU United Nations Office Board Member.

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Last updated on Monday, November 24, 2014.

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A video overview on the history and work of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2012. 

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