Waving through history: how the ILO finally got an official flag

When the Pope visited Geneva in 1971, the Office was unable to display its flag with the Organization’s distinctive tripartite logo. The reason was not that the flag was inappropriate for what amounted to a State visit. Rather, the flag enjoyed no official standing and hence didn’t legally exist.

Though the ILO flag has been used for decades, its presence was merely “decorative” according to a 1977 letter from the ILO to the Flag Research Center in the U.S., which said “the ILO does not have a flag….we have used it solely for decorative purposes inside meeting rooms on a number of occasions, but it cannot be used outdoors as no steps have been taken for its adoption.”

The ILO flag had been designed and manufactured on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Organization in 1969 but never properly registered. Few ILO staff, and even fewer outsiders, knew that what most people considered to be the official banner of the Organization – bearing the logo approved by then Director-General David A. Morse in 1967 on a light blue background – had no official standing. As a result, it could not be displayed at official gatherings and was subject to other restrictive conditions. That began to change this year as the ILO moved forward in the official adoption process.

Why was the ILO flag merely a “decoration” for so many years? The issue goes back to the founding of the UN in 1945 when the ILO and other specialized agencies were discouraged from adopting their own official flags on the grounds that a proliferation of banners would detract from the sense that all specialized agencies should be seen as part of the broader UN system. But times change. Over the years, other UN organizations have adopted their own flags to demonstrate their unique standing within the UN family. The adoption of a resolution by the International Labour Conference in June legalizing the flag ensures that the ILO will be no exception. No longer a mere decoration, the ILO flag will now take its rightful place alongside other agency flags representing today’s UN.