International Justice and Action: UU Office at the United Nations

History of the UU Office at the United Nations

Historical image featuring Adlai Stevenson, Rev. Dana Greeley, and Rev. Dr. Walter Donald Kring

Adlai Stevenson II (second from right) visited All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City during his 1956 campaign for U.S. president. The Rev. Dr. Walter Donald Kring (right) was an ardent supporter of the UUA’s Office at the United Nations; Stevenson served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 1961 to 1965. (Photo Credit: All Souls NYC Archives)

The UUA Office at the UN represented the UUA and the Canadian Unitarian Council at the United Nations, where the office promoted the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all, as reflected in the United Nations Charter. Through targeted education, advocacy, and outreach, the office engaged Unitarian Universalists in support of international cooperation and the work of the UN.

Unitarian Universalism's long history with the United Nations can be traced back to the early 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 1950s, 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 (UUA) 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 Association Office at the United Nations (UU@UN) 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 Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations in the U.S. and Canada. By 1965, the network had grown to over 300 envoys.

At its height, over 500 congregations had UU@UN 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 the UU Office at the United Nations incorporated as a separate non-profit organization.

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 Rev. William Sinkford, UUA President, and Rev. Olivia Holmes, UUA Director of International Affairs and Board Member of the UU Office at the United Nations.

In July 2011, the UU Office at the United Nations rejoined the UUA under its International Resources Department and strengthened its formal relations with the Canadian Unitarian Council.

In 2023, the UUA determined that the vital, UU-value-driven work at the UN is more closely aligned with the mission and strategic priorities ofUUSC. Given this, the UUA made the bold decision to use its historic leverage within the UN sphere to bolster UUSC’s human rights advocacy work.

A video overview on the history and work of the Unitarian Universalist Association Office at the United Nations, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012. (At that time, the office was called the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, or UU-UNO)

Watch on YouTube

Article from UU World from November 5, 2012: "UU-UNO marks fifty years at the United Nations"

Read on UU World