I met Ali this morning. He’s a young surgeon in Goth, Germany and is spending a week in Geneva on vacation. Originally from Yemen, he understands English well, but I often have to repeat myself several times, each time slower than before. It can be frustrating, but I realize that my American English can be difficult to understand for many Europeans. Ali and I are in the same room along with three boys from Finland and one guy who I haven’t met. I mentioned to Ali over breakfast that I planned to visit the UN and the Red Cross Museum this morning, and he indicated that he wanted to come as well. So after breakfast, he and I hopped on a bus to the United Nations.
Upon arriving at the United Nations Geneva headquarters, we were screened and ushered into a large Border Customs-like area. There the officer asked for our passports. I produced mine first and gave it to him. The officer entered my information into his computer, took a digital picture of me, and within a few minutes, printed out a UN tourist ID card for me, with a color picture and all. It would make a nice souvenir. Then for 10 Francs each, Ali and I joined an English tour of the building.
I think Americans in general have a low opinion of the United Nations Organization. We may respect and even celebratize the Secretary General (as I believe was the case with Kofi Annan), but we feel that the organization itself is an impotent player in international politics. It has no real power of its own and whatever force it has to influence world politics, it derives from its most powerful member states. This has been starkly evident recently given its inability to prevent the war in Iraq. The appointment of John Bolton as the US ambassador to the UN despite opposition from the UN community was also telling of the American opinion of the organization. Yet this attitude towards the UN is not limited to Americans. Especially because of the war in Iraq, I believe that much of the international community has lost faith in the organization. If the purpose of this organization is to prevent war, then it failed miserably in the case of Iraq. Ali, too, brought up this point.
As I toured the headquarters building, however, I began to see another side of the United Nations, one that perhaps should be obvious, but I had not given much thought to in the past. The UN may not be very effective at influencing international politics, but as an institution, it represents the efforts of men of all creeds coming together to agree that there are certain goals that all humans aspire to: peace, security, economic and social well-being. It ensconces the dream of a world that could be. It celebrates the ability of man to overcome his fears and limitations and to accomplish great things. Sure, the UN may not succeed in preventing wars or other scourges wrought by humans, but it continues to serve as the repository of our common, human ideals and noble aspirations. Over time we may still achieve these goals.
This message was most poignant for me in the Council Chamber. In this room murals by Spanish artist José-Maria Sert cover three walls and the ceiling. On one wall, a mural depicts the futility of war. On the left side the wall, victorious soldiers march back from the battlefield carrying a massive coffin which contains their dead brethren. Mothers who have lost their children cry at their feet. On the right, the artist shows the losers of the war. A wailing mother sits above a heap of dead soldiers with her fists raised to the sky calling for retribution. Both the victors and the losers suffer terribly from war. Moreover, the war never really ends because the losers won’t all die and will seek vengeance. In the middle of these two sides of war stand five giants holding up an arch. The giants symbolize the five continents with whose combined effort we can all succeed in preventing war. The other two walls depict the progress of mankind through health, technology, freedom, and peace. The ceiling shows the giants again, this time clasping their hands together in solidarity.
Afterwards, Ali and I paid a visit to the Red Cross-Red Crescent Museum, which is located right across the street from the UN building. I found its dedication to preserving and serving human life inspiring as well.