UN Matters

APA and the United Nations: A reciprocal relationship

In this new column, Dr. Juneau Gary and Dr. Neal Rubin outline the role psychologists play in applying behavioral science perspectives to issues of social justice and human rights

By Juneau Gary, PsyD, and Neal S. Rubin, PhD, ABPP

Both psychology colleagues and members of the UN community have often asked, "What are psychologists doing at the United Nations?" This question often reflects widely held assumptions regarding the traditional roles of psychologists. Psychologists at the UN reach beyond traditional roles and advocate for global social justice by applying behavioral science perspectives to social justice and human rights issues before this world body. Gaining wide acceptance for the value of psychological science and best practices to advance 21st century human rights issues has occurred slowly, yet steadily. When issues requiring a psychological/behavioral perspective come before the General Assembly, psychologists may provide expertise in particular content areas. The team of psychologists representing APA has provided leadership on a range of topics such as climate change, gender equality, STEM education for girls, and global human rights. Psychologists may also lobby ambassadors of Member States (i.e., countries) to assert the necessity of including wording in documents that is consistent with current psychological research and best practices. For example, by providing research findings that underscore the psychosocial impact of HIV and AIDS, emerging documents have included specific references to addressing both health as well as mental health issues in intervention programs. Additionally, psychologists may work with other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others in the UN family of organizations (e.g., UNICEF, WHO) to collaborate on a range of pressing issues, as our team actively supports the human rights of all persons throughout the life cycle and around the globe. Through these activities, psychologists at the UN are expanding the traditional roles of our profession while contributing to the meaningful application of behavioral science to improving the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people.

With this as background context, the purpose of this regular column is to provide information about how psychologists are engaged in addressing global social justice and human rights issues at the UN. We hope to engender an understanding of the complexities of the UN system and an appreciation of our strategic initiatives as we advocate for the inclusion of the behavioral dimensions of human rights issues. What has made it possible for the APA Team to influence UN programs and activities in this way?

NGO status: A brief historical account

As representatives of nations were drafting the Charter of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945, there were approximately 100 official participating "consultants." These "outsiders" successfully lobbied for a consultative role for civil society via non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In other words, these consultants successfully lobbied that ordinary citizens of member nations, people like ourselves, would have a role in the UN system. This collaboration had never been promulgated in documents from the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which established the framework for the UN Charter, nor did any ordinary citizen have a role in the structure of the earlier League of Nations in 1918. A portal was created by the consultants in drafting Article 71 of the UN Charter, which permitted the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to provide an avenue for NGOs to consult with UN officials and diplomats on matters presented before the UN world body.

The Economic and Social Council may make suitable arrangements for consultation with nongovernmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence. Such arrangements may be made with international organizations and, where appropriate, with national organizations after consultation with the Member of the United Nations concerned‖ (Charter of the United Nations and Statue of the International Court of Justice, Ch. I, Article 71).

With these words, organizations (such as APA), which do not represent governments, but rather represent members of civil society, were given a voice in the UN system.

In 1999, APA was granted Special Consultative status as an NGO with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN. ECOSOC is a principle organ of the UN, coordinating fourteen specialized agencies which focus on issues such as standards of living, social and health concerns, international cooperation and fundamental human rights. In this context, APA presents itself as an international organization. APA is also associated as an NGO with the UN’s Department of Public Information (DPI). Established in 1946, DPI is the public voice of the UN, promoting global awareness of the work of the organization. DPI facilitates the work of the NGO community by disseminating information regarding ongoing developments at the UN. Therefore, through our association with DPI, APA endeavors to inform the psychological community of current developments at the UN. This aim is accomplished in numerous ways including this regular column, our newsletter reports, yearly symposia at APA, as well as at other regional and international conferences; and other venues throughout the year.

Along with representatives of other psychology NGOs (including International Union of Psychological Science, International Council of Psychologists, International Association of Applied Psychology, Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues and others), the APA team has provided leadership roles on ECOSOC issues such as the following:

  • Ageing

  • Children and families

  • Disability access and accommodation

  • Gender equality

  • Habitat and climate change

  • Health and mental health


  • Human rights

  • Multiculturalism

  • Peace and conflict resolution

  • Racism and xenophobia

  • Universal primary education

  • Women

APA’s UN team: A reciprocal relationship

APA supports five volunteer representatives to ECOSOC and two volunteer representatives to DPI. Together with some very capable graduate student interns and associate representatives (who work on specialized issues), we comprise the APA UN NGO Team. One might summarize our responsibilities as comprising a reciprocal relationship to the UN. Namely, the ECOSOC representatives advocate for the inclusion of psychological perspectives that shape human rights issues before the UN community, and the DPI representatives inform the psychological community regarding global human rights issues before the UN.

Psychology Day at the United Nations: The intersection of reciprocity

The APA UN NGO Team, along with partnering psychology NGOs has established an annual and successful Psychology Day at the United Nations. The goal of "Psychology Day" is to bring together all segments of the UN community, as well as psychologists and psychology students, to examine the breadth, depth, and ramifications of and identify solutions for a global issue. In this way, the reciprocal responsibilities of advocacy for pressing global issues and dissemination of information to psychologists are integrated into the vision of this exciting event. In 2011, the theme for the Fourth Annual Psychology Day, "Reach Them to Teach Them: The Role of Psychology in Achieving Universal Access to Education," incorporated many of the social and human rights issues previously mentioned. This theme also addressed the UN’s millennium development goal #2 (i.e., achieving universal primary education by 2015). We were fortunate to have two APA Past-Presidents, Florence Denmark (1980) and Carol Goodheart (2010) as speakers at Psychology Day, as well as the current CIRP co-chair Florence Kaslow.

In this regular column, we will keep you informed about a range of current developments at the UN, including the details for the Fifth Annual Psychology Day, as those plans emerge. (See APA at the United Nations for more information).

About the authors
Juneau Gary, Psy.D. and Neal S. Rubin, Ph.D., ABPP, are APA UN representatives and co-editors of this column. Dr. Gary is Professor in the Department of Counselor Education at Kean University in New Jersey, and Dr. Rubin is Professor at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology of Argosy University in Chicago.