“… determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind. To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”
The first section of the preamble to the charter of the United Nations. There is more to it, but you kinda get the point from that first part alone. I’ve had a sort of affinity for the United Nations for a long time now, and on reading these words, I remember why. For all its flaws and shortcomings, its fundamental mission, to unite the world and everyone in it, for the sake of everyone in it, is almost an embodiment of the human spirit. Good in its purest form, with no ulterior motives of profit or power.
I’m not naively overly-optimistic about the UN either. I know it’s one thing to have pure intentions, and quite another entirely to actually carry them out to fruition without compromising any sort of integrity.. And I know that the UN is a stellar example of this. I also think that that is part of the charm of the whole organisation. It knows what it wants to do, it has a vision of a better world, but hasn’t yet sussed out how to make it all work. Progress is rarely made without going through a process of trial and error, and when your goals are that big, and shrouded by such uncertainty, there’s going to be a lot of error.
That, ultimately, is why I want to work for the UN. Because of its flaws. I don’t want to work for the perfect organisation that has everything figured out and just needs to maintain some sort of functional status quo. Where’s the challenge in that? The UN excites me because of its potential, and if there’s a direction that I’d like my life to take career-wise, that’s the one. I’m going to the United Nations University in Maastricht (UNU/MERIT) at the end of this month to do a MSc in Human Development and hopefully kick-start some sort of a career in the development field (which, fingers crossed, one day will lead me to the UN).
Anyway, I seem to have digressed! Today I’m in New York City… home to that extraterritorial piece of land on which the international headquarters of that mighty organisation stand. Let’s take a tour!
The building itself is instantly recognisable. I’ve walked past it other times I’ve been in the city, snapped the odd photo of its flag display and shiny blue exterior, but I’ve always had somewhere else to go. Not today!
Walking through the front gates takes you to into a sort of front garden area with a bunch of sculptures that have been donated by various member countries. This cracked sphere given by Italy is presumably oozing with symbolism…
Originally I just wanted to go in and wander around the lobby, where there’s lots of interesting displays, information about the UN and a photography exhibition, but then I saw that it was like $11 for a guided tour of the whole place, and obviously wasn’t going to miss that! The English-speaking tour I booked myself on left about an hour later, so I had time to explore the lobby anyway. (and go to the gift shop!)
One of the things on display was this flag:
This is the flag that flew above the Canal Hotel, the UN headquarters in Baghdad. From June 2013, the United Nations Assistance Aission in Iraq, led by the Secretary General’s Special Representative Sérgio Vieira de Mello, worked out of the Canal Hotel. Their mission was to support a new and inclusive political process in Iraq, to encourage the pursuit of human rights and justice and to assist the emerging civil society including a free and independent press. On August 19th 2013, a bomb ripped apart the Canal Hotel, killing 22 UN employees, including Vieira de Mello. 22 people who were working for a better world and a freer Iraq.
The tour starts, and we are led away from the lobby to the upper floors of the building. On the way to the elevator there is this chart. If you cant read it… the big yellow dot ($1630 billion) is annual worldwide military expenditure. Weapons, training, the like. The tiny dot at the other end ($0.65 billion) is annual worldwide expenditure on international disarmament and non-proliferation. As in getting rid of all the stuff that kills people. The one to the left of that is the entire annual UN budget, and the other two are international development assistance (the smaller of the two being what goes to the least developed countries).
Ok, that’s enough depressing statistics for one day.
The first place they take us on the tour is the Security Council Chamber, where the Security Council work their magic/veto each other so nothing gets done.
It’s weird to think of the magnitude of the decisions that have been made (or failed to be made) in this room, and how far-reaching the consequences probably are.
Next is the main attraction: the General Assembly Hall, where the General Assembly, made up of representatives from all the UN member states, gathers to and discuss and vote on all the important issues and resolutions that none of them re actually bound to adhere to. You’ve probably seen it in movies… Some poor diplomat always gets snipered off the podium.
Those two rooms were pretty much where all the action happens. The rest of the tour was kind of like an exhibition of war, with, among many others, displays of old guns, iconic blue helmets from through the ages, and melted metal from Hiroshima (tin cans, coins and stuff reduced to puddles by the superheated air from the blast). There was murals and information about the various conflicts throughout the world that the UN has been involved in in the last 50 years or so. It was a sobering and enlightening 45 minutes to go through it all properly and take it all in.
Then, just at then end as you are about to leave, this.
The UN in a nutshell by the late, great Dag Hammarskjöld.
It’s not perfect, but it’s trying, and today has whetted my appetite nicely for what will hopefully be a fantastic year studying at the UNU in the Netherlands.
But for now.. it’s lunch time and I fancy me a New York pizza slice!