On a trip to New York several years ago, I toured the UN Headquarters. From Grand Central Station, I had to cover several city blocks. The site is somewhat isolated, as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority provides no subway, bus, or rail service there. That strenuous walk was well worth my time, because I learned how this organization truly makes a difference.
The Headquarters site, on the East River in lower midtown Manhattan, is not part of the United States. The four building complex sits on land donated by the Rockefeller family after the UN’s organization in 1945. Network news trucks parked outside represented modern day sentries. Many people entering lugged photography equipment. I detected many languages, and was amused at the uniform of the professional photographer: black skinny tee shirt and black greasy jeans. Each photographer looked as if he had been wearing the same clothes for several days.
After clearing security, just like at an airport, I bought a ticket for the next tour, available in eleven different languages. Our guide, Marion, a tall, gracious woman, was from Ghana (home also of Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the UN). Marion asked each person to identify his country. Two teenaged boys claimed the Bronx as if it were a country unto itself. Our group included a family from Taiwan, two teen-aged Korean girls, two Malaysian girls, a young Frenchman, a lady and her son from Wisconsin (they, as I, said “US” and the Bronx boys grinned).
We viewed gifts from various countries, including Japan’s garden. Its peace bell was molded from coins collected by Japanese school children. Thailand provided a small replica of a magnificent barge owned by the royal family. China gave an intricate ivory carving commemorating a thousand mile Chinese railway. The carving, crafted by ninety-eight people who worked over two years to complete it, was made from eight elephant tusks. The tiny train passengers, smaller than a grain of rice, were carved in such astonishing detail that we could see some passengers were waving.
A three-part mural by Alexandre Kishchenko depicted the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. On the left panel, symbolizing the past, a man was painted in drab grays and browns. The middle portion, the actual meltdown, displayed yellow lightning bolts for energy. In the final panel, a woman, with green blooming plants, represented the hope of the future. We women liked the fact that the woman represented hope.
The Security Council chamber, an auditorium whose furnishings were donated by Norway, featured a mural symbolizing peace and renewal after World War II. Fifteen members comprise the Security Council. Nine are elected, and five: the US, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, France, and China, are permanent because they fought as Allies in World War II. Each Security Council country must provide representation in the city around the clock, because the Council can meet at any time. I was amazed to stand in the room where global policies were made. I recalled the tension-filled movie “Thirteen Days” (about JFK’s management of the Cuban missile crisis), in which Adlai Stevenson called the bluff of the Soviet ambassador in this very chamber.
When the UN was formed, 141 territories existed. Most have become liberated, and only eleven territories remain. The Trusteeship chamber, furnished by Denmark, has become obsolete, and is currently used for other meetings. I mused how much better life would be if the Security Council could become obsolete. We viewed a map of the world’s territories. I was surprised to find several places listed as US territories.
The Taiwanese man translated to his family. As we discussed the map, the father remarked, “They don’t list Taiwan.” Marion replied, “China says Taiwan is with them.” I thought, what does Taiwan say? The father countered, “Taiwan is a country unto itself.” Marion answered: “You must talk to China about that.” I wondered what the US territory countries would say.
As we left the Trusteeship chamber, the Taiwanese man asked me to snap his family’s picture in front of a mosaic developed from a Norman Rockwell painting. It featured people from many different nationalities and religious beliefs and quoted the Gold Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” a tenet Rockwell believed was common to most religions. I thought of the strife today, and wished everybody followed that rule better, including me.
At an exhibit encouraging disarmament, a triangle-shaped chart listed the world’s expenditures. The widest segment at the top, $780 billion (in 2004), was allocated for armament, while the narrow bottom went for humanitarian aid such as world hunger, medical treatment, and human rights. Marion commented, “Shouldn’t we turn that chart upside down, and give $780 billion to help people, instead of toward destruction?”
We viewed a series of enlarged photographs depicting the damage caused by land mines: children with no arms or missing a leg below the knee. In some countries, more land mines exist than people. The mines may be purchased for as little as $3, but removal of a single mine costs over $1,000. In those countries, children cry when they are made to walk to school, not because of the physical exertion or because they want to avoid classes, but because they fear mines planted along the way. When a child loses a limb to a land mine, he must continually be refitted with new prostheses as he grows, an expensive procedure unavailable to most victims.
We reviewed a treaty signed by many nations, agreeing to stop producing and using land mines. The Frenchman said, “The US won’t sign this agreement. Why does it expect others to?” Marion sighed, “You must take up that issue elsewhere.”
I wanted to say, “You’re right, we’re imperfect. I don’t understand why we don’t sign it. But we have a pretty good deal here, over all.” I’ve heard it said that anyone born in the US has already won the lottery, compared to millions living in Third World countries. Winston Churchill complained, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms that have ever been tried.” I didn’t trust my college French degree, rusty after twenty years, to debate foreign policy with the Frenchman, so I shrugged.
Next we visited the Economic Council chamber, with furnishings donated by Sweden. While the Security Council makes headlines, the Economic Council quietly passes resolutions to protect the weak and vulnerable, promote the products of small countries, and encourage the preservation of natural resources. I realized that I had always thought of the UN only in terms of the Security Council, and had no idea of the many ways peoples of the world are helped by this arm of the UN. For example, UNICEF, the United Nations children’s Fund, is one of many foreign aid programs the Economic Council administers, to benefit children and disadvantaged people. Its main mission, however, remains promoting peace.
What countries pay for members in the UN varies. The US contributes the most, 22% of the entire budget. Next are Japan, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. The minimum a country may pay for membership is $50,000. For poor countries, this payment represents more than a dollar per person. While that amount isn’t a sacrifice to most Americans, it is to island inhabitants who might only earn a hundred dollars a year.
In American capitalist fashion, Marion ended our tour with a sashay through the gift shop. Our diverse group was courteous to each other, holding open doors, offering to take photos, waiting patiently on anyone who lingered for a closer look. I thought about how we represented the rank and file: anxious to bridge small gaps, to reach out and say, “Yes, I’m like you, and I want our world to be a better, safer place.” While the UN might not perform exactly as the US wishes, perhaps he US hasn’t always exactly followed the Golden Rule. If charity begins at home, so does citizenship. On the taxi ride back to my hotel, I pledged to be a more conscious, socially responsible citizen of the world, aiming to teat others as I would have them treat me. Those interested may view the UN website, www.un.org, for more information.