London, 16 November 1945. Ellen Wilkinson, British Minister of Education, reads the UNESCO constitution.
As I sat in the cavernous hall 1 in UNESCO's Paris headquarters, attending a meeting of the Organisation for Publications, I found myself reminiscing about an important event in my life that happened more than half a century ago. On 1 November, 1945, as a young cultural attaché in London, I represented Egypt in what came to be called the London Conference for the Establishment of an Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation of the United Nations. The participants in that particular conference were drawn from all the countries that, a few months before, had drafted the charter of the United Nations.
The conference was held at the Institute of Civil Engineers, one of the few buildings in London that was both large enough to house such an important meeting and that had escaped bomb damage during German air raids. The original title did not include science, and it was at the insistence of scientists, headed by Julian Huxley and Joseph Needham, that the S was included in UNESCO.
The president of the conference was Ellen Wilkinson, the new Labour minister of education, and among the delegates were Julian Huxley, who later became secretary-general of the nascent organisation and the well known American thinker Archibald MacLeish, who was a poet and the librarian of the American Congress. Both Huxley and MacLeish played an important role in the preparation and drafting of the constitution of UNESCO.
More than 50 years have passed since that historic meeting that laid the foundations for the establishment of UNESCO and people now seem to take the organisation for granted. This is why, as I proposed to the Paris meeting, we should remind ourselves and others of the lofty principles of this organisation.
There I was, a young cultural attaché sitting next to people I had known only through their writings, attending an event that would be instrumental in the birth of such and important international organisation. For days we sat and discussed various issues until at 3pm on Friday, 16 November, the president of the conference, Ellen Wilkinson, opened the 10th plenary session at which delegates, including myself, signed the final act, the constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
Archibald MacLeish found the right words to sum up the feelings of the delegates in his closing speech.
"I think that some of us who came to this conference came with narrower ideas of what this organisation was going to be than the ideas with which we leave it. Some of us thought it was to be an international organisation for this or for that or the other piece of the whole objective, but I think not one of us knew we should be constructing here a great and powerful instrument for the broadest possible purpose, which is the purpose of the common understanding of men for peace."
Let us only hope that, as the current century winds inexorably to its close, that the ambitions we all had for UNESCO at that first meeting are finally realised, for there can be little doubt that its work in fostering understanding between peoples is as necessary today as it has ever been. -- A. N. Hashem
This video is also part of the documentary "Building Peace in the Minds of Men"