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Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.

Constitution of The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 16 November 1945

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was founded on 16 November 1945, in a world emerging from the ravages of war. This document, part of UNESCO’s extensive archives, is its constitution, or even its ‘birth certificate’, the work of representatives from 44 countries. UNESCO’s focus was, and is, building peace through international cooperation in education, science, and culture, and it was founded on explicitly humanist principles, seeking to establish the ‘intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind’. Julian Huxley (later to become the first President of the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK) was its first Director-General, and many other humanists – including philosopher A.J. Ayer and poet Stephen Spender – contributed to the vision for UNESCO in its early years.

UNESCO itself was a successor of an earlier body of the League of Nations, the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, with which a number of prominent humanists (notably Gilbert Murray, Albert Einstein, and Marie Curie) were actively involved. Formed in 1922, the Committee focused on scientific and cultural communication and collaboration, aiming to strengthen international bonds through mutual understanding. Its executive branch, the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, was established in Paris in 1926. In 1933, the Institute published A League of Minds, containing open letters from international thinkers on varied subjects. Introducing it, editors Paul Valéry and Henri Focillon wrote:

It has never been hoped to establish a unified (possibly monotonous) accord between the thoughts of men. That would not be desirable. It is well that ideas should differ with the man, the age, the conditions, the surroundings, and there is not only one way of thinking. Variety is even a necessary and natural condition of vitality. But it matters very much that those precious fine shades of thought should not materialise as obstacles, should not harden in isolation, should not become impervious to change.

This had much in common with the ideals of the Open Society, around which the British Humanist Association would focus its policies from the late 1960s, and which arose in part from the ideas of Henri Bergson – the inaugural President of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation.

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