The idea of a UN training and research institute was mentioned for the first time in a 1962 resolution of the UN General Assembly (resolution 1827 (XVII) of 18 December 1962). The founding of UNITAR in 1963 followed the recommendation of the Economic and Social Council to the General Assembly, which commissioned the Secretary-General with the establishment of a United Nations Institute for Training and Research as an autonomous body within the UN system (General Assembly resolution 1934 (XVIII) of 11 December 1963).
The creation of UNITAR occurred at the most opportune time in the history of the United Nations. 36 States had joined the Organization since 1960, including 28 African States. That unprecedented wave of decolonization was a success story for the United Nations. At the same time, however, it created a critical need for assistance, as many of the newly-independent States lacked the capacity to train their young diplomats. The Institute, therefore, endeavoured to satisfy that need in accordance with its Statute.
UNITAR commenced functioning in March 1965. The Institute originally had its headquarters based in New York and a European Office in Geneva. The first office – still known as the “UNITAR building”– stood up on First Avenue near UN Headquarters, before being sold for financial reasons. In 1993, UNITAR’s headquarters were transferred to Geneva.
At the outset, the functions of UNITAR included the following: conducting training programmes in multilateral diplomacy and international cooperation for diplomats accredited to the United Nations and national officials; carrying out a wide range of training programmes in social and economic development; and ensuring liaison with UN organizations while strengthening cooperation with academic institutions. The Institute was equally entrusted to conduct research to improve outcomes of its training programmes through the development of training tools and methodologies. The Institute's research programme originally concentrated on three main areas: UN institutional issues, peace and security issues, and economic and social issues.
Shaped by its first four Executive Directors originally from newly-independent African States, the Institute’s vision of training was developed in light of the very needs and priorities of recipient countries. The fact that the Institute kept growing and diversifying its programmes and research undertakings over the years – and even prevailed in spite of its financial tribulations – is due to the relevance of its approach. The Institute was to become a remarkable instrument for developing countries and countries in transition to access pragmatic solutions, informed by practical research on policy practices, to address emerging management issues in various domains.
UNITAR heads always made it a high priority to continously adapt the quality of contents to state-of-the-art thinking on most pressing challenges faced by national governments and their international counterparts. Leading universities, experienced civil servants and expert practitioners, including retired high-ranking UN officials, constantly guaranteed the relevance of programmes and training packages and publications. Building on national institutions, training operations aimed at making at all times a lasting contribution to national development. At a point in history, UNITAR could offer programmes as diverse as supporting Oman to set up a school of diplomats, Angola to restructure its Ministry of Foreign Affairs to better deal with free-market economies or Malta to prepare future multilateral negotiators.
In the troubled times of the early 21st century, when analysts predict the crisis of multilateralism and already anticipate its renaissance, UNITAR’s mandate and purposes appear even sharper. From environmental governance to management of intellectual property rights in trade negotiations, from peacekeeping in predeployment settings to UN reform, UNITAR is at the forefront to respond to pressing issues. While harnessing an ever complex and diversified set of international challenges, the Institute strives to offer learning technologies that respond to life-long training needs of officials from UN Member States and subnational or non-governmental institutions.
Over the past decades UNITAR has acquired a unique expertise, accumulating experience, knowledge and capacities to design and implement a variety of training activities. The small size of the Institute and its independence within the United Nations system enable it to respond with a high degree of flexibility to new challenges in the area of training and research.
The pragmatic and practice-oriented approach to training has proved to be the right path for the Institute. UNITAR has continuously increased the number of its training programmes and has successfully established strong institutional cooperation, two trends that will mark the work of the Institute in the future.
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