Visiting the U. N.

On our last morning in Manhattan we decided to visit the United Nations Headquarters, a huge complex just off First Avenue between 42nd and 48th Streets. Word to the wise, don’t imagine (like we did) that you can get to the General Assembly Building when it opens, breeze in for a quick tour, and be out in an hour or so. Going through security, for one thing, reminds you of being at an airport—made more difficult since 9/11, I’m sure. Then there is a very long, slow-moving line since only two or three employees sell tickets for the tours. Even though we arrived at around 9:30, there were already plenty of folks ahead of us and we had to wait for the 11:00 o’clock tour. At least there are some things to do in the lobby while waiting: like seeing the Chagall stained-glass window entitled Peace, the Dag Hammarskjöld Meditation Room, and, on that Monday, a moving tribute to the 101 U. N. staff members lost as a result of the Haitian earthquake in January 2010, more deaths than in any mission worldwide.

Once gathered together, our group was brought upstairs to see where the Security Council meets. The young Chinese woman, who is studying in New York as well as working as a guide at the U. N., told us that decisions regarding international peace made by the 15 members of this committee are legally binding. The Council meets daily in private sessions and its five permanent members have veto power. The president of the Security Council rotates monthly in alphabetical order according to country. Our guide told us that, since it was founded in the fall of 1945, the U. N. has helped 80 nations achieve self-determination. Currently, the U.N. has 15 separate peacekeeping missions from Haiti to Congo and Liberia, to India and Pakistan, among others.

We then visited the General Assembly, the main deliberative organ of the U. N. In this large room that can hold 2000 people, 80 member countries discuss pressing world problems. Subjects are varied and include landmines, epidemics, hazardous waste, and human trafficking. Decorating the halls throughout the building are international gifts to the United Nations, such as a Buddha from Thailand, Persian rugs of the men who have served as Secretary General throughout the years, beautiful Kente cloth from West Africa, and a Chernobyl commemoration from Belarus.

The most interesting part of the tour, in my opinion, had to do with duties of the United Nations outside of peacekeeping. At a summit in 2000 the U.N. proposed eight development goals for the millennium, including eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, and promoting gender equality and empowering women. One way it hopes to achieve another goal of reducing child mortality is by supplying mosquito nets to eliminate malaria among families in affected areas throughout the world. Since the mid-1990s UNICEF (The United Nations Children's Fund) has also distributed a so-called “school-in-a-box”, which contains basic supplies for schoolchildren in developing countries. Another terrific idea is the multi-functional platform which contains a hand-cranked generator. This energy supply has eliminated two to four hours of hard labor by women each day by speeding the grinding of grain.

All in all, it was a very informative introduction to the work of the United Nations.

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