Things You Didn't Know About the UN

January 2021 marks the 75th anniversary of the United Nations’ very first meeting, held on January 10, 1946. On this dark and gloomy day in postwar London, a light that promised a new era of global cooperation flickered to life. Today, the UN impacts our lives in ways we may not even realize — especially as global travelers. Read on to discover eight things you may not know about this enduring institution.


The UN Has a Presence in Every Corner of the Globe

The Peace Palace, also known as Vredespalais, in The Hague, The Netherlands.
Credit: Lisay / iStock

The monolithic UN headquarters, overlooking the East River in midtown Manhattan, is a waypoint on New York City’s skyline. Curious visitors can even take a tour of the building, but did you know the organization has 11 other main offices around the globe?

Europe is a hub of UN activity, with the International Court of Justice located in the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, and offices in Vienna, Austria and Geneva, Switzerland. The United Nations University is located in Tokyo, Japan. Other locations include Nairobi, Kenya; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Santiago, Chile; Bangkok, Thailand; and Beirut, Lebanon — plus dozens of other smaller bases in even the most hard-to-reach places.


General Assembly Meetings Used to Swap Locations

Methodist central hall on Westminister Square in London, UK.
Credit: zefart / Shutterstock

Before all these swanky offices were built, however, the UN had to improvise. After the 1946 meeting was held in Westminster Central Hall, London, General Assembly meetings alternated between the massive centers at Flushing Meadow, Queens and the Élysée Palace, Paris.

It was only in 1952 that UN General Assembly delegates met in their new, purpose-built headquarters in Manhattan. They have continued to meet here ever since, with only one exception. In 1988, the 43rd session of the UN General Assembly was held in Geneva, Switzerland because Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was due to speak at the meeting, but had been denied entry to the United States.


There Are 1,121 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Multiple Giraffes stand infant of a passing by Hot Air Balloon in The Serengeti in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.
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The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is responsible for a project known as the World Heritage Sites. These incredible landmarks and natural wonders are deemed to be of “outstanding value to humanity.” From the ultra-modern sails of Sydney Opera House, to the prehistoric stone circle at Stonehenge, and to the wild Serengeti National Park, UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites cover a vast range of breathtaking places. By highlighting just how amazing they are, UNESCO hopes that these sites will be cared for and preserved so that future generations can marvel at and learn from them.


Italy and China Have the Most World Heritage Sites

Colosseum in Rome without people in the morning, Italy.
Credit: Eloi_Omella / iStock

With 55 World Heritage Sites apiece, Italy and China top the UNESCO leaderboard. Both countries were the birthplace of powerful empires, so they are bursting with ancient ruins, historic roads, and battlegrounds. Looking to take UN-themed vacation? In Italy, you can pay a visit to Rome’s Colosseum, get a gelato and sunbathe at the Amalfi Coast, and wander around the majestic halls of expansive Baroque palaces in Turin and elsewhere. In China, the Great Wall is only the start — there’s also the Forbidden City of Beijing, the Leshan Giant Buddha, the Terracotta Army in Xi’an, and much, much more.

Besides these impressive human-made feats, Italy and China also boast astounding natural beauty. Italy has forests, islands, and mountains that made UNESCO’s list. China’s landscape is even more spectacular: See the spiky karsts and ice-blue volcanic lakes in the south of the country, before trudging the Silk Road in Xinjiang’s deserts.


27 Countries Have No World Heritage Sites (Yet)

Tiger's nest Paro Taktsang monastery on the high cliff over Paro valley, The Kingdom of Bhutan.
Credit: Nopp Chan-thada / Shutterstock

Of the 27 countries without UNESCO sites, perhaps the most surprising of these is the Kingdom of Bhutan, where beautiful Buddhist monasteries nestle in the chilly embrace of the Himalayas. The rainforest-covered Sultanate of Brunei, on the island of Borneo, also has no World Heritage Sites.

Many African countries are also not found on UNESCO’s list. Despite their rich trading history, Somalia and Djibouti have no World Heritage Sites, nor do Burundi and Rwanda, although they sit at the heart of the Great Rift Valley. Even the historic southern African kingdom of eSwatini hasn’t made the list — yet. On the other end of the scale, the world’s newest country, South Sudan, is also awaiting UNESCO recognition.

Only one European state lacks a single UNESCO World Heritage Site: the tiny principality of Monaco.


There's a Rigorous 5-Step Nomination Process for UNESCO Sites

Outside UNESCO's headquarters in Paris, France.
Credit: Christian Mueller / Shutterstock

Once a country is a member of the World Heritage Convention, it takes stock of its important sites, and puts them on a “Tentative List.” Then, the nation will present a select few of these in a nomination file to UNESCO’s World Heritage Center.

When it arrives at the Center, it moves between various advisory bodies, before being passed to the World Heritage Committee, who make the final decision. They consider how each site fits the all-important World Heritage criteria — it must meet at least one out of 10 requirements to qualify. Of the 27 countries without a UNESCO site, all except Brunei, Timor-Leste, São Tomé and Príncipe, Niue, Somalia, and Equatorial Guinea have properties on their Tentative Lists. That means you should expect to visit several new UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the near future!


The UN Helps Make Flying Safe

Under view of an airplane flying through the sky.
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A sub-agency of the UN called the International Civil Aviation Organization, established in 1947 and headquartered in Montreal, sets the technical standards for aircraft, meteorology, navigation, and almost all aspects of flight safety worldwide.

Every country in the world (except Taiwan) is represented in some way at the ICAO, whose rules are then enforced by national governments. Passengers can fly safe in the knowledge that the UN is constantly monitoring and improving the airline industry.


The UN Also Promotes Responsible and Sustainable Travel

Airplane flying over rooftop with solar panels in Los Angeles, California.
Credit: IPGGutenbergUKLtd / iStock

The UN doesn’t just make travel safe — it aims to make it more eco-friendly, responsible, and ethical. The World Tourism Organization promotes sustainable projects, educates people, and bolsters the fledgling tourism industries of lesser-visited countries. Currently, it is focusing on Sustainable Development Goals, which include combating global hunger and fighting for women’s empowerment.

That’s not all: The UNWTO has also released a Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, which outlines ten articles for tourism industry professionals to follow. The UNWTO has even translated it into a handy code of conduct for travelers, so they can act in a sustainable manner next time they pack their bags.


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