Thursday, January 20, 2011

United Nations along the East River (1st Ave and 46th St)

I've walked past the UN headquarters regularly for over 5 years walking my dog, but never ventured past the gates until today. 

Like the permanent missions to the UN, whose flags fly in English alpha order (Afghanistan to Zimbabwe) in front of the headquarters, the 18 acres of the UN headquarters is international territory.  Except for the lobby and the basement level coffee shop, book store and gift shop (which has fabulous jewelry and interesting other gifts from all over the world), it is not open to the public except by guided tours (  Tours are offered in Arabic, English, Chinese, French, Spanish and Russian.  Tours in Italian, Japanese, German, Korean and other languages are offered upon request.  Tickets are $16 for adults, $11 for seniors and students, and $9 for children 5-12 (no children under 5). 

I took one of their English guided tours (60 mins) during which our group of 12 was informed about the UN's history beginning after WWII; the designers of the headquarters (which included renowned architects like France's Le Corbusier and Brazil's Oscar Niemayer); its six principal organs (International Court of Justice (not in NYC), Security Council, General Assembly, Economic & Social Council, Trusteeship Council, and Secretariat (which is the administrative body that operates out of the tall, skinny building--39 stories above ground and 3 below); and the amazing collection of art gifted to the UN by its various member nations (which number 192 at present).

The tour was well worth the $16 and the time (of which there never seems to be enough).  Besides the incredible art and artifacts (the huge ivory carving from China that took over 2 years to carve is awe inspiring--see right), the breadth of issues and the reach of the UN through all of its organs and its affiliated organizations (like UNICEF and The World Bank) are truly amazing.  They are tackling global issues such as war, hunger and poverty, women's rights (see below), childhood disease and mortality, climate change, nuclear disarmament, and the global economic crisis.  All of these things seem insurmountable, and perhaps they are, but the UN and its affiliated organizations are working on them.

I have never been a big fan of the UN, as it has seemed pretty ineffectual to me (and when the general session is IN, our neighborhood traffic is a mess, all the nice restaurants in the City are packed, and all the trash cans in the area are eliminated so I have no place to dispose of my dog's poop bags on our walks).  But our tour guide gave me something to ponder when she paraphrased Kofi Annan (Secretary General from 1997-2006) answering a reporter who questioned why the UN was so ineffectual as compared to God who was able to create the world in 6 days by saying that God had the benefit of working alone.  Yes, something to ponder in this world that feels ever-smaller with increasing technology.

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