The UN should set aside a day for common sense

Although it has probably escaped your notice, tomorrow is World Philosophy Day.

The annual dedication to history’s great thinkers may not be the only commemorative day you have missed. The month of November has no less than a dozen celebratory days designated by the United Nations.

Some highlight worthy causes, such as remembering the victims of road accidents (November 21), ending violence against women (November 25) or standing shoulder to shoulder with Palestinians (November 29). Others are more obscure, harder to justify and even irrelevant.

Does either World Television Day (November 21) or Africa Industrialisation Day (November 20) warrant a dedication? Did people behave in a more broad-minded manner than usual for the 24 hours of International Day for Tolerance yesterday?

And tomorrow, the UN-designated homage to philosophy, an annual occurrence on the third Thursday of November, is unlikely to yield any great debate on the Socratic dialogues or Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

With a cluttered calendar, whole weeks are now devoted to issues such as breastfeeding (in August), interfaith harmony (February) and – in lumbering UN language – Solidarity with the Peoples of Non-Self-Governing Territories (May).

It does not stop there. The year 2010 is dedicated to two issues: biodiversity and cultural rapprochement. From January 1, 2011 you can begin celebrating forests and chemistry

Most people are oblivious to the current decade-long commemorations for 10 lofty themes, from indigenous people (2005-14) to fighting desertification (2010-20). Next year begins a decade for road safety.

It is only a matter of time before all 365 days have been taken, and UN members will clamour to pass a resolution utilising the final vacant slot for a pet project – perhaps February 29, which occurs only once every four years.

As well as the 192-nation UN General Assembly, private groups have joined the dating game, designating days for left-handers (August 13), veganism (November 1) and – more comically – talking like a pirate (September 19).

The result is a calendar overloaded with observances. While many are noble and noteworthy in their own rights, they often fail to leave a mark on the popular imagination.

Celebrating annual events dates back to early civilisations, when timings were fixed by solstices, equinoxes, the solar and lunar calendars and seasonal occurrences. The ancient Egyptians celebrated the annual inundation of the Nile.

Religions fixed the most recognisable days, such as Eid al Adha, Eid al Fitr, Easter and Christmas. Anniversaries of historical events, such as the UAE’s upcoming National Day (December 2), are equally well-received, often marked with a public holiday.

The problem with UN observances is that there are now so many that they have lost significance. The most recently designated UN date, World Statistics Day (October 20), hardly threatens the status of days such as the Prophet’s birthday, Mothering Sunday or Diwali.

Even Shrove Tuesday, celebrated as Pancake Day with a fried-batter treat in some western countries, is more remarkable than a day that the UN says will commemorate “the many achievements of official statistics”.

Statistics are, of course, useful and important, but that does not mean that they deserve an annual celebration. For this reason, it is time for the UN General Assembly to exercise restraint before elevating another annual observance to international law.

Advocates point to the usefulness of World No Tobacco Day (May 31) in helping quitters, or days for spotlighting important issues like cancer, corruption and human rights – that they do more good than harm.

But the Gregorian calendar has been used far too liberally and the time has come to de-commission dates that have failed to garner mass appeal. We can surely live without days for intellectual property (April 26), mountains (December 11) and audiovisual heritage (October 27).

At the very least, we could spare one single day on the calendar from Manhattan’s resolution-hungry bureaucrats. Using the clunky language of UN resolutions, it could even be called the International Day Without Observance.

This article first appeared in The National.

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