announcement

Update: Check new design of our homepage!

The United Nations Flag

The Rich Meaning and Symbolism of the United Nations Flag

National flags are designed to have symbolic meaning that's representative of the unique history and mission of the countries they represent. Designing a flag that represents the entire global community, with all its diversity, could be a significant challenge. So far, the UN flag is another example of such a flag.
Historyplex Staff
Last Updated: Apr 9, 2018
It's well-known that the flags of individual countries around the world have symbolic meanings that make a statement about the nations they stand for. In the United States, every child learns in elementary school that the flag has 13 stripes and 50 stars, representing the 13 original colonies and the 50 states, respectively. The colors have important meanings, as well. The Union Jack, which is the flag of Great Britain, is composed of St. Andrew's cross, St. Patrick's cross, and St. George's cross, overlapping according to a specific pattern. These three symbols represent Scotland, Ireland, and England, giving the flag a specific meaning. Unique national histories and ideals make flag designs sensible, but it's much more difficult to design a flag that will represent the entire human family, consisting of all the nations of the world.

The Light Blue Flag of the United Nations

The flag of the United Nations represents one response to the challenge of designing a world flag. This flag consists of a light blue background, upon which is a white world map with the North Pole at its center and white olive branches on either side of it. The flag itself has an interesting history which informs the understanding of the flag as a symbol of international diplomacy. Although the United Nations was created in 1945, the UN flag wasn't adopted until 1947. Originally, it wasn't intended to be a flag at all, but was rather meant to be printed on a pin that would be worn by UN delegates as identification. The individuals commissioned to design the pin, however, realized that it could become a more permanent symbol, and thus, took great care in choosing its elements.

Symbolism in the UN Flag

The light blue color is perhaps the most striking feature of the UN flag. The single background color is different from many national flags, which frequently use bars or stripes of different colors. Additionally, many national flags that employ the color blue opt for a bolder royal blue, as opposed to the light blue of the UN flag. According to the original UN Secretary-General's report of 1946, the specific color is Pantone 279, but the color is not codified or officially required, making slight variations possible. In terms of symbolism, this color is one of the most important aspects of the flag. The light blue was chosen because it was taken to be the opposite of red, the color most commonly representing war. This underscores the UN's peacekeeping mission.

Olive Branches and the Prime Meridian

The symbolism of the pictorial elements of the UN flag is fairly straightforward and obvious. The globe represents all the nations and people of the world, indicating the UN's all-inclusive internationalism, and olive branches are a well-known symbol of peace. Although the original proposed design placed North America in a prominent position in the map projection, the design was soon amended so that no country or continent would be more prominent on the map than any other. Instead, the prime meridian and ante-meridian are aligned with the center of the map.

Peace and Internationalism in the Global Community

All the elements of the UN flag combine to create a symbol of peace and internationalism which represents the international community. However, it could easily be argued that this flag does not do an adequate job of representing the human family at large. For one thing, the two-color design, although it gives an impression of unity and of a single purpose, does not do justice to the diversity of the world's nations, or to the dynamism of human history. As a permanent symbol of the United Nations, however, the flag is both striking, appropriate, and easily recognizable, making it, on the whole, a great success.