On a recent trip to New York, I finally had an opportunity to take a tour of the United Nations. I’ve been to the city a number of times, but always had very little time for sight-seeing on account of work or weddings. But that changed about 6 months ago, when I became the State Coordinator for the Friends of the World Food Program in Minnesota. The organization has an intense orientation educating staff on the plight of the tens of millions of people who go to bed hungry every night. Officially, the WFP is the food aid branch of the United Nations and the world’s largest humanitarian organization (though they receive no direct financial aid from the UN). However, the UN is the international framework that facilitates the WFP; without the cooperation of member nations, the UN and the WFP would be unable to fulfill their missions.
International diplomacy and cooperation is the real miracle of the United Nations. I wanted to see where the decisions were made, by whom, and for whom. And going to the actual UN headquarters and taking a tour was the first step.
Some tips before you go: You cannot buy tickets in advance unless you are part of a large group. The UN is closed on weekends, holidays, and when the diplomats are convening (check the website www.un.org/tours). The visiting hours are from 9:45a to 4:45p, tours last about an hour and cost $16 per adult. You have to go through a winding security line in a large security tent, so give yourself at least 45 minutes before your tour. Large bags must be checked with security and cannot be brought in (purses are fine). The tour leads a group of 20 visitors through a UN gallery of informational panels, Millennium Development Goals, and international gifts and artifacts. After being handed your temporary visitor tags, a well-versed tour guide hands you headphones, mics up, and leads you around the UN building. The guide speaks in a soft, conversational tone that is very easily heard but intended not to disturb any VIPs that might be loitering around.
Because you are only allowed to take pictures when the guide permits it, every visitor with a camera waits anxiously for the guide to grant permission. The whole picture process gets a bit silly after the 10th time in 15 minutes the guide urges you to take pictures now (as everyone takes a picture exactly when the guide suggests it). I kept imagining all of the thousands of UN visitors heading back home to show their friends the same pictures that their friends took when they toured the UN.
The tour eventually winds its way toward the General Assembly, where all of the world’s representatives gather together. The room is quite impressive, both visually and because of its purpose. Each long table seats representatives from 2 nations with seating for 3 front-bench diplomats and 3 back-benchers per country. The cavernous hall is filled with these tables all the way to the front podium in front of the United Nations seal. The raised, windowed rooms along either side of the Assembly that look like skyboxes are filled with interpreters who translate the speakers’ words into one of 6 official UN languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. Each seat is equipped with a translating device for any of the diplomats to listen. Seeing these translating rooms solicited flashbacks of The Intrepreter with Nicole Kidman, as parts of the movie were filmed inside the UN.
The General Assembly is where all 192 member states are allowed representation. Regardless of population size, economic strength, or military power, every nation is allowed only one vote. Motions put forward on important issues require a two-thirds majority to pass, but they are only recommendations and not legally binding.
The tour does not include the Security Council, which is where the real power of the UN resides. This is supposed to be the place the world goes to deal with international security threats. Resolutions adopted by this 15-member body are legally binding and are called Security Council Resolutions. The Security Council consists of 5 permanent and 10 temporary members elected to 2-year terms. The 5 permanent members: China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States, each have veto power over any resolution which makes unanimous consensus quite challenging to achieve. There could be any number of reasons why a permanent member state of the Security Council would want to veto a resolution; and these structural barriers to action often frustrate the role the UN has tried to play as peacekeeper.
This is where many of the criticisms of the UN lie, in their perceived inability to prevent or mitigate armed conflict. The UN goes to great lengths to maintain their impartiality in disputes between nations. The UN does have a peacekeeping force but they have strict Rules of Engagement which limit UN peacekeepers to self-defense. They are deployed throughout the world to provide protection to refugees, monitor that peace agreements are being upheld, and other World Health Organization (WHO) and World Food Programme (WFP) initiatives are able to be completed safely. The UN peacekeepers are not an international army.
And yet, the UN does so much more than deal or not deal with military crises. What the UN has become increasingly effective at is trying to mitigate the build-up and aftermath of armed conflict. They accomplish this through the UN’s large bureaucratic institutions that span the intimidating size and scope of the world’s problems. And since most of the world’s problems stem from one of the issues below, the UN needs bureaucracies to deal with them.
Economic Issues: World Bank and International Monetary Fund
Health Issues: World Health Organization
Food Aid: World Food Program
Nuclear Issues: International Atomic Energy Association
These institutions are not without their failings but what other international entity would we have deal with these problems? It is easy to sit back and point out all the ways in which the UN and other UN agencies do not succeed, because the problems they face are almost impossibly difficult: world hunger, arms proliferation, human trafficking, child labor and exploitation, and the threat of nuclear war are huge, existential problems. With only 5 years to achieve their 2015 Millennium Development Goals: End Poverty & Hunger, Universal Education, Gender Equality, Child Health, Maternal Health, Combat HIV/AIDS, Environmental Sustainability, and Global Partnership, there is an urgent need for governments to plan and address these pertinent issues.
All too often, it serves some narrow political purpose to denigrate and defame the United Nations. However, when you have worldwide problems you need worldwide cooperation to provide worldwide solutions. Yes, the problems are large and the UN isn’t perfect, but you can't ignore the rest of the world. I’m glad the US is a charter member of the United Nations.