Building peace in the minds of men and women

Fun facts about UNESCO's General Conference

12 November 2019

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FAQ for UNESCO’s 40th General Conference…only cooler

If you happen to be passing by UNESCO headquarters in Paris, you may wonder why there are the flags of 193 countries flapping in the breeze.

The answer is easy, but the story behind it is about how the world comes together to tackle issues from climate change to access to education to protecting journalists.

12 November sees the opening of UNESCO’s General Conference. It happens every two years over two-weeks. This year’s theme is about ‘(Re)generation’, the role of young people in shaping the global agenda for peace. There will be some housekeeping, like polishing the priorities and checking the bank accounts to make sure we have the cash for the coming two years. What’s cool about UNESCO is that all the decisions are usually by consensus, which means everybody agrees.

Designed for Debate


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All of this happens in an incredible building that was designed to inspire progressive thinking, and must have certainly witnessed its fair share of corridor diplomacy over the last 39 General Conferences. And if you want your conversation seasoned with a little art – or not so little – UNESCO has the largest art collection of any UN organization, more than 600 works of art.

So, how do you get the whole world talking? There are six official languages at UNESCO: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. The job of bridging the linguistic divides falls to the intrepid UNESCO translators. Official debates on policy take place in UNESCO’s conference rooms, each fitted with six soundproof booths from which there is simultaneous translation of every word uttered! And when we say simultaneous, no sooner is a word spoken in one of the six languages than it is in the other five. Same, too, for any of the documents that are needed. All six, all the time.


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You can imagine that during the General Conference, everyone wants a front row seat. We’ve thought of everything. Before the conference begins, the country delegations draw lots to decide who will be seated first – this year, it’s Serbia! The rest of the seating is allocated alphabetically, with country names always written in French - bien sur! Are you ready for some more fun facts? Did you know?

1000 – 2000 meals will be served every day during the General Conference.

It takes a team of four working a day and a half to raise 193 flags.

And, keeping with the flags, all 193 are up only once every two years because …

IT”S GENERAL CONFERENCE!!!

What’s up this year?

We kick things off on our first day with young change-makers talking to presidents and prime ministers about these global challenges. There’s also a Youth Forum on 18 November, which is all about connecting young people with today’s decision makers across a range of topics dealing with UNESCO’s primary areas of engagement: Education, Science and Culture, Communication and Information and the Social and Human Sciences.

Over 100 ministers of Higher Education will gather on 13 November to discuss Inclusion and Mobility in education. Pay attention class: this one’s for you. Ever wonder how a college degree in one country is accepted in another? That’s UNESCO at work and the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications of Higher Education is set to be officially adopted at the General Conference kicking off the eventual globalization of a process. In time, it will also help an estimated 8 million migrant or refugee students pick-up studies where they left off, continuing their education in their host countries.


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The Culture Forum is on the 19th and will feature the largest gathering of culture ministers at UNESCO since 1998, with nearly 120 attending. That’s a lot of culture! But what are they here for? If you haven’t noticed, culture is all around us, from your mom’s pasta sauce handed down from your great grandmother to your favorite TV series. There’s other stuff too. Culture can be a common ground for us to solve some of the world’s pressing issues.

New International Days will be proclaimed – 2020 will see the first International Days of Mathematics, Art, Engineering for Sustainable Development and the Olive Tree, the symbol of peace.

The General Conference agenda is packed – but you can follow all the action on Twitter and all our social media channels at #unescoGC and at #IChoosePeace.