UN flag flies at half-mast at New York HQ on day of Kim Jong il’s funeral, Dec. 28, 2011

The 1947 UN flag code dictates that the flag flies at half-mast the day after the death of a head of state of a UN member state or on the day of the official funeral (and that no other flags are raised).

An exception to the head of state rule was Kofi Annan ordering that the UN flag be lowered following the death of Yasser Arafat. The UN protocol office says that Annan, like all UN secretaries-general, had the discretion to order the lowering of the flag.

The flag was also lowered following the death of Pope John Paul II in April 2005, the protocol office said. The pope is considered the head of state of the Vatican. The Vatican is not a UN member state but an observer state, still one important notch above the PLO which is a UN member organization (though 2012 may see an upgrade for the Palestians to observer state).

The protocol office said too that, more recently, unlike the EU and NATO, which both flew flags at half-mast following the death of Vaclav Havel, the UN did not. 

People on Twitter have asked whether the UN flag was lowered following the deaths of Sadaam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi. No. Neither was considered a head of state at the time of their deaths.

And if you’re wondering just why it’s so very, very important for countries to have a flag, here’s Eddie Izzard to explain

(On a related note, the UN General Assembly last week held a minute of silence to mark the death of Kim Jong il but this was boycotted by most member states. North Korea’s UN mission also made a request to the UN Security Council to observe a minute of silence but the council rejected that request.)