30 April 2019
It’s no surprise the stamps of the United Nations are popular with collectors, reflecting a global ambition to make the world a better place and often featuring thought-provoking subjects and designs, as Chris West reveals as he recalls the origins of UN stamps.
While the Second World War was still raging, delegates of fifty countries met in San Francisco to draw up a charter for a new body which, they hoped, would ensure peace in the future. Amongst other things, the delegates received a folder containing a US stamp designed by President Franklin D Roosevelt to celebrate the occasion.
The charter was signed in June 1945, and the United Nations formally came into being on 24 October that year. The first meeting was held at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster on 10 January 1946, where a decision was made to set up permanent headquarters in New York.
The idea that the new body should issue its own stamps came in 1947, from an Argentinean delegate, José Arce, who collected stamps himself. The United Nations Postal Administration was formed in 1951, and the first stamps issued in October of that year, on the sixth anniversary of the UN’s founding.
There were eleven denominations, from one cent to one dollar (early UN stamps were all in US currency). The issue was popular with collectors and sold out quickly, though did not turn out to be a good investment. Only the 50c and the $1 (shown) have much value today.
By this time, the issuing organisation had already hit problems. The world was clearly not united, and the UN debating chamber had become a theatre for East/West divisions. Early proceedings were marred by a series of vetoes from the Soviet Union, which then walked out when the UN refused to accept mainland China’s Communist government as legitimate. During this walk-out, the Korean crisis erupted, and the UN went to war to defend South Korea.
However, the UN continued producing stamps with the same four languages on them. Most remain of interest value only, though a minisheet produced in 1955 to celebrate the organisation’s tenth anniversary is now worth about £30. In 1969 the UN began issuing stamps, inscribed in French and denominated in Swiss Francs, from its office in the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Ten years later, a third source of UN issues was created: stamps inscribed in German and denominated in Schillings (and later Euros), issued in Vienna.
UN stamps have tended to celebrate worthy, uncontroversial themes. However there have been exceptions. An issue from 1981, inscribed ‘Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People’ aroused mixed emotions. In 1989, a UN stamp showed the flag of ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ – the Khmer Rouge regime, which had exterminated around a third of its population and had been driven out of power a decade previously, but which was, bizarrely, still recognized by the UN.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was hoped that the world’s nations could once again unite, but this has yet to happen. The UN failed to do much about the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan or Syria. UN peacekeepers have been accused of sexual misconduct on several recent missions. The organization is criticized as ineffective, bureaucratic and corrupt.
Yet there are positives. The World Health Organisation, a UN body, has been central to the eradication of smallpox and the containment of the Ebola virus. UNESCO has created and now protects over a thousand World Heritage Sites. Peacekeeping is hard to evaluate, but in many cases, UN intervention seems to have stopped violent confrontations spiralling out of control. Despite the horrors of Syria, the number of wars and battle deaths around the world has been at, or near, a historical low since 2005. And the organisation continues to produce some attractive stamps.
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