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5 United Nations Achievements Worth Celebrating on U.N. Day

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The United Nations Charter first took effect on Oct. 24, 1945 — and, since 1948, that day has been marked as United Nations Day.

As the celebration rolls around once again this weekend, it will surely be used as an occasion to celebrate the U.N. and its values: spreading democracy, promoting peace, combating world hunger and other sweeping noble missions. But when it’s not United Nations Day, the organization often finds itself criticized for both its failures and tendency as an unwieldy organization to not take decisive actions.

So, in order to provide you with some specific success examples to sprinkle into your conversations over the course of the day, here is a list of five specific, mostly-uncontroversial accomplishments that the U.N. has actually achieved in the 70 years of its tenure:

Saving the Pyramids: UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural agency, has a list of World Heritage Sites that it deems culturally significant and will take steps towards preserving or protecting. The area around the Giza pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt is one such site. When construction began on an eight-lane highway a mile south of the Sphinx and three great pyramids in 1995, the impending change threatened the architectural site and its ancient structures. UNESCO dispatched an expert mission to Egypt to meet with government authorities about diverting the highway, which the officials agreed to do.

Eradicating Smallpox: The World Health Organization, a U.N. agency, led the global effort to eradicate the disease. By 1980, after almost 13 years of an immunization campaign, the WHO declared smallpox extinct. TIME reported on its campaign in 1977:

Unlike other viral diseases transmitted by insects, birds or mammals, smallpox is spread by man himself…Because of this distinctive characteristic of smallpox, WHO officials realized at the start of their ambitious program in 1967 that they had to locate every victim, keep all of them totally isolated during the infectious period and inoculate as many people as possible in the vicinity. These were formidable goals, and many health authorities were openly skeptical that they could be achieved during WHO’S self-imposed timetable of only ten years…

To administer it effectively—not always an easy task in areas where modern medicine is virtually unknown—WHO used a simple two-pronged needle developed by Wyeth Laboratories. It held just a single drop of vaccine between the points and could be used to make 15 quick jabs into the skin—a nearly foolproof technique that almost anyone could master.

Protecting the Ozone: In 1987, the U.N. Environment Program sponsored a conference of 24 nations to pledge to take action against the deterioration of the ozone layer at the time. After nearly five years of talks, the group produced the Montreal Protocol — a treaty to reduce the emissions of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, on a broad scale. That week, TIME reported:

To paraphrase that famous remark about the weather, everyone talks about the ozone layer, but no one does anything about it. Though evidence has mounted that man-made compounds called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are destroying the screen of ozone-enriched air that helps shield the earth from the sun’s dangerous radiation, the world’s nations have been slow to develop a consensus on how to cope with the problem.

Last week the world, or at least a part of it, finally did something. At a conference in Montreal sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program, 24 countries signed a milestone accord that promised to halve production and use of ozone-destroying chemicals by 1999. ”There has never been an agreement like this on a global scale,” exulted Winfried Lang of Austria, chairman of the conference. Said Lee Thomas, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: ”The signing shows an unprecedented degree of cooperation among nations of the world in balancing economic development and environmental protection.”

In an era where climate change is becoming increasingly dire, the agreement is still hailed as a success in environmental protection.

Helping Save the Lives of 90 Million Children: UNICEF is a broader example, but merits acknowledgment on any list of U.N. successes. Created in 1946, the United Nations Children’s Fund works for the rights of children, and won the Nobel Peace Prize less than two after it was founded. Its efforts have steadily increased since; in its last annual report, the fund says it has helped save over 90 million children since 1990.

Promoting Arms Control: The U.N. was founded with goals of promoting non-violence by means of nuclear weapons. The resolutions of disarmament proposed in U.N. General Assemblies and discussed by the five permanent members of the Security Council played an instrumental role in the lead-up to the 1968 Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.On March 22, 1968, TIME described the Treaty and the U.N.’s role:

The treaty permits the three nuclear-power members of the disarmament committee—the U.S., Russia and Britain—to continue their own development of nuclear power for whatever use, looking forward to the eventual possibility of disarmament. It binds them, however, to insure that peaceful benefits deriving from their nuclear programs will be passed on to non-nuclear countries that sign the treaty. To safeguard non-nuclear signers against nonsigners who have nuclear power or aspire to it, the treaty provides defense assurances. Under it, any non-nuclear member that feels itself threatened can notify the U.N. Security Council and, at the same time, request immediate help from either the U.S. or Russia.

Ultimately, the NPT did not eradicate nuclear weapons—but it moved U.N. efforts forward significantly, securing a commitment of responsibility from major world powers, which is what the U.N. is all about.

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Write to Julia Zorthian at julia.zorthian@time.com