11/1/2007 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
I confess: As a patriot, I love the United Nations building and its beautiful grounds on New York’s East River, which is why I came to the site for an official tour.
And as far as I can determine, I am one of a handful of U.S. journalists, especially pundits, naive enough to believe that the United Nations is a viable and necessary institution and has been good for America.
I rejected George W. Bush’s contempt for the United Nations when he thumbed his nose at then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s sage advice and started our nation’s ill-fated war with Iraq. And, for sure, I never thought that the uber-hawkish, garrulous John Bolton should have been permitted to set foot in the U.N. building as our nation’s ambassador.
After nearly seven years of Bush’s bellicosity, many Americans seem to have forgotten that while en route to tamp down wars and rumors of wars, the United Nations promotes peace, prosperity, human and environmental health and international cooperation.
In that tradition, Annan, while addressing staffers before he left office, said “the United Nations must … respond to its challenges – including, first and foremost, the knowledge that many people are still left defenseless against hunger, disease and environmental degradation, even though the world has the means to rescue them.”
As I and 11 other tourists followed the tour guide along the wide corridors, I was struck by the international diversity of our group – four Americans, four Japanese, two Germans, two Frenchmen. We introduced ourselves, telling where we were from. Even without trying, the United Nations attracts people worldwide, a fact that represents immeasurable goodwill.
The artworks by Chagall, Henry Moore and others displayed in the public spaces and assembly halls depict the United Nations’ humanitarianism and its mission to bring sanity to those who would rather resort to arms before sitting down at the negotiating table. If you knew nothing about the United Nations, the artwork alone would suggest that the goal of the organization is to protect life, that its blue-helmeted army is not deployed to kill.
For me, visiting the meeting halls was the most interesting part of the tour. Our first stop was the Security Council Hall. Business was not in session, so we could sit in the giant room and test the earphones.
Next, we went to the Trusteeship Council Hall. A meeting was in session, and we could see dozens of technicians and translators inside the glass booths above the floor.
Then, we went to the Economic and Social Council hall. This council, as its literature states, devotes “its attention and resources to promoting living standards and human skills and potential throughout the world.” Specifically, it promotes efforts such as child survival and development, human rights, health and medical research, education, the advancement of women, workers’ rights and peaceful uses of atomic energy.
An important meeting was in session, so we could not enter the chamber. I was surprised, and disappointed, when our guide said that the press rarely covers the Economic and Social Council’s work. Few journalists and their editors, she said, find such non-war-related topics interesting.
She was right. I do not recall ever reading an article about how the International Fund for Agricultural Development creates systems for providing credit that enablerural poor people to overcome poverty. I have seen few TV programs about efforts that advance literacy among women in developing countries.
This kind of stuff is not sexy enough for the press, but the Economic and Social Council is hard at work behind the scenes improving people’s lives.
The highlight of the trip, for me, was our stop at the General Assembly Hall. The rostrum of this hall has hosted almost every head of state and diplomatic luminary since the assembly first convened on Oct. 14, 1952. Here is where Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez said earlier this year that Bush was the devil, filling the room with the odor of sulfur.
My group and I had the great opportunity to see and hear Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, deliver part of his annual address.
“Fifty years after the Atoms for Peace initiative,” I heard him say, “I believe the time has come to think of a new framework for the use of nuclear energy – a framework that accounts both for the lessons we have learned and the current reality.”
Here is where Bush returned to eat crow – to ask the General Assembly to get behind his disastrous war in Iraq. In so doing, the U.S. president was acknowledging that the United Nations has relevance after all.