A proposal to UNESCO in the 1960s

New York, 1966: Ivo Lapenna (left) with the UN vice secretary and two UEA collaborators

In 1964, Ivo Lapenna became president of Universal Esperanto Association. The law professor, Croatian by birth and then living in London, was a charismatic leader who wanted to bring the Esperanto movement forward by extensive outreach. For that he was not shy of spending some money of the association and try something at UNESCO, the UN organization for education, science and culture.

By then, UEA was in ‘consulting relations’ with UNESCO, as where many other non governmental organizations. In 1954 UNESCO had recognized the accomplishments of the Esperanto movement for international understanding.  Now Ivo Lapenna wanted UNESCO to tell the member states that they introduce Esperanto as a foreign language in schools.

For this proposal UEA and its ten thousands of members collected ultimately nearly one million signatures of individuals and signatures of the representatives of 3,800 organizations. In October 1966, a delegation led by Lapenna visited the UN vice secretary Chakravarthy Narasimhan to hand over the most important signatures.

Mr. Narasimhan explained that only member states can add the question of Esperanto as a school subject to the agenda of the general assembly. Lapenna mentioned a paragraph in the rules of procedure that the UN secretary himself can add an item to the agenda. Mr. Narasimhan answered that that relates only to matters concerning the secretary, e.g. the UN construction in New York.

Lapenna insisted that the rights of the secretary are ‘not limited’ and that ‘being a professor of international law I know certainly what is UN and what are the powers of the different organs.’ Lapenna wanted the vice secretary to send at least an official UN communiqué to the member states about the Esperanto proposal. None of this happened, in spite of some angry letters by Lapenna the following years and his complains about ‘linguistically privileged’ UN officials and their sabotage.

Looking back, I asked a former collaborator of UEA what to make up of the petition of the 1960s – pricy in years when the association suffered some severe financial shortcomings. The collaborator explained that Lapenna was never so naive that he believed he could get through with it. But Lapenna wanted to have a subject to tell about to the press, and something to mobilize the Esperanto speakers and have them occupied with. And of course, one might add, to show that Lapenna was a capable and agile leader.

(Ziko van Dijk: 1966: Propono al UN. Kial Lapenna ne farigxis la heroo de Novjorko. In: (the same) La Asocio. Skizoj kaj studoj pri la historio de UEA. Flandra Esperanto-Ligo, Antwerp 2008, pp. 277-287.)