Conferences that changed the world

The United Nations addresses the many issues it deals with by holding thematic conferences. You will find in this section (through the links below) information on past UN conferences, to help you better understand the theme (or issue) each conference covered and the actions that were taken subsequent to the conference. You can learn here what the United Nations has accomplished and the action it has taken on subjects as varied as the environment and sustainable development, housing, the status of women and gender equality, the commemoration of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, aging, HIV/AIDS, drug control, the state of the world's children, and more. Because United Nations conferences have often had follow-ups and reviews by the General Assembly in the form of Special Sessions, these Special Sessions are also listed here, along with other Special Sessions, High-level Meetings, Summits and events.




Elderly people chatting at Jongmyo Park in downtown Seoul, Republic of Korea.

In 1982, in Vienna, Austria, the United Nations held the World Assembly on Ageing, which addressed issues relating to the aging of individuals and populations. The Assembly adopted the Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing which was later endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1982 (resolution 37/51). The Plan included 62 recommendations for action, would inspire reflection and action on aging over the next 20 years.


Students attending a school in Harar, Ethiopia.

Over 7,000 people attended a special session of the United Nations General Assembly in May 2002, to review the progress made since the 1990 World Summit for Children and to renew the international community's commitment to children's rights. An outcome document, 'A World Fit for Children' was adopted, which confirmed the obligations, commitments, principles and objectives needed to help build a world fit for children.


Ban Ki-moon visiting the former Nazi Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.

The United Nations General Assembly held an extraordinary session on January 24, 2005 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. The session provided an opportunity to remind people that such atrocities must never be allowed to happen again, and that the utmost vigilance must be exercised to prevent the resurgence of anti-Semitism and to be ready to act to combat its new manifestations.

Woman smoking opium while lying down, Ban Yang, Thailand

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971, and the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988 gave rise to the creation of three major international drug control treaties. In 1998, a special session of the UN General Assembly reaffirmed the will to combat the world's drug problem and adopted a Political Declaration and a Plan of Action.


Eucalyptus plant taking root on the sand dunes near Lompoul, Senegal.

There have been several United Nations conferences on the environment and sustainable development. These have resulted in historic roadmaps, such as the Stockholm Declaration of 1972, the Rio Declaration (and its global action plan Agenda 21) in 1992, the Millennium Goals of 2000 and more recently the Sustainable Development Goals of 2015.

House surrounded by flooding from the Artibonite River in Grand Dessalines, Haiti.

Habitat I, held in 1976 in Vancouver, Canada, was the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements and resulted in the Vancouver Declaration, which set goals and principles for the development of human settlements including 64 recommendations for national action. Twenty years later in 1996, Habitat II was held in Istanbul, Turkey, followed by Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador in 2016.

Person disguised as a drum with the slogan Getting to Zero HIV in Bangkok, Thailand.

On June 25 and 27, 2001, Heads of State and representatives of Governments gathered at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS. The meeting was a milestone in the response to AIDS and the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS that emerged during this meeting helped guide and secure the action, commitment, support and resources needed to fight AIDS.


Four children in the Sudan facing camera and smiling.

The first international human rights conference in Teheran in 1968 was followed by the historic World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 which resulted in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, the establishment of the post of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the creation of a new mechanism, a Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, and other notable achievements.

A group of internally displaced persons in Afghanistan seated in a row.

The category of least developed countries (LDCs) was established in 1971 by the UN General Assembly with a view to attracting international support for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the UN family. In order to focus on the need of the LDCs, four conferences have taken place since 1981. A fifth is scheduled for 2022.

Group photo of displaced people in Afghanistan.

The First World Population Conference, in Rome in 1954, promoted the creation of regional training centres to address population issues and prepare specialists in demographic analysis. The Fifth International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo in 1994 ,emphasized the relationship between population and development and the well-being of individuals in the framework of universally recognized human rights standards.


A group of South Africans behind fence separating them from white community.

Since the United Nations was created, it has worked for human rights and for the eradication of racism and racial discrimination. The first World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination was held in Geneva in 1978, followed by other conferences including the Durban Review Conference in 2009. In September 2021, the UN General Assembly will mark the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.

 Aerial view of the Marovo Lagoon in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands.

In 1994, in Barbados, the first World Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States was held. The Conference adopted the Program of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, which defined development principles and strategies that aimed to protect the fragile environments of small island states.

Young Afghan boy carrying the kindling used in the rural areas of the country for heating homes and cooking meals.

The World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1995, at that time the largest gathering of world leaders ever assembled, was a historic and significant moment in UN history, because the document which resulted from it, the Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development and its Programme of Action, has guided multilateral action on social development ever since.

Two Burundian smiling women in Ruyig, Burundi.

In September 1995, a record 17,000 participants and 30,000 activists gathered in Beijing, China, for the opening of the Fourth World Conference on Women. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which were adopted at the end of the conference, marked an unprecedented step forward for women's rights and remain a powerful source of direction and inspiration to this day.