Our small group of tourists at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City were suddenly stunned into silence even though our guide, from Ghana, made the statement with the casualness of a toilet being closed for cleaning.
The United Nations was born immediately following the Second World War and countries all over the globe sought to be the host of the official headquarters.
Thanks to the philanthropic beneficence of John D Rockefeller, 18 acres of land were secured on the east side of Manhattan and it was agreed that New York City would be the home of the UN.
Ironically, the land purchased by a man widely considered to be the wealthiest American of all time was then home to a series of slaughterhouses. Within a very short timeframe, a place reserved for butchery was re-consecrated to try to preserve world peace.
The UN headquarters has some 5,000 full-time employees including their tour guides. Prior to the pandemic, they took industrial action to try and convince the UN that their positions should be reserved solely for full-time staff. They were successful and today most of the posts are held by fully trained, experienced guides with only a few posts reserved for part-time employees.
Before Covid, more than 250,000 visitors came each year to explore the history of the United Nations. The numbers were dramatically reduced during the pandemic due to closures and reduced capacity for hosting visitors. However, in our group there were visitors from the Netherlands, Israel, Brazil and Scotland, confirming that hope is on the horizon regarding the return of international tourists.
The budget for the United Nations is slightly over $3 billion and the largest contributors are the United States, China, Japan and Germany, who jointly contribute nearly 50 per cent of the total annual funding. The level of support for each member country is calculated based upon a complex formula that includes GDP and other factors.
During our one-hour tour, the guide focused over and over again on the theme of world peace and when he was asked why, despite the evidence of the tragedies of war from the First World War to more recently in Ukraine, some countries continue to choose to engage in such conflicts, the guide rolled his eyes, then quietly answered: “I suppose that self-protection has always been part of the DNA of mankind.”
I then asked how many women were currently official delegates to the United Nations and he mentioned that, while the number fluctuates because all delegates are appointed by their home countries, the percentage of female UN delegates was definitely in the minority. I then loudly suggested: “Well, that is part of the problem.”
As we made our way to the General Assembly room where all 193 member countries convene, we walked sombrely through a space known as the Disarmament Corridor. This narrow hallway leads directly to the entrance doors of this ‘sancto sanctorum’ of meeting rooms in the UN, where the world’s representatives hear internationally prominent speakers such as heads of state and then deliberate, debate and determine how to preserve world peace.
On each side of the Disarmament Corridor are graphic images of genocide, holocaust, and war. Heart-breaking remnants of a child’s scorched sweater from Hiroshima and horrific photographs of Jews, including Nobel prize winner Elie Wiesel, in Auschwitz, reminded me with every step of the more recent mass burial site images in Ukraine I had been recently witnessing on television.
At the end of the tour, as we quietly and reverentially approached the entrance doors of the General Assembly, I asked the tour guide if the 193 UN delegates were required to walk through the Disarmament Corridor to attend their meetings and cast their votes?
He replied that a few do choose to make this journey, however, most use other access routes. I suggested that all delegates should be required to walk through it prior to voting and in addition, I hoped that every high school student in New York City would also make this sacred pilgrimage to remind them of their responsibilities as future citizens and peacemakers upon planet Earth.
Before leaving the United Nations, I told our tour guide that many people in Scotland hope that one day we shall become an independent nation and join the United Nations.
He smiled broadly and said: “To join the United Nations, a prospective member simply must send the Secretary General a letter requesting membership. If the citizens of the prospective member state have democratically voted for their independence, they will be most welcome to join the UN. So, just get in touch.”
Perhaps one day the leader of Scotland will have the opportunity to draft such a letter to the leader of the UN and we shall take our seat at the table as number 194 among the other potential peacemakers. I firmly believe that Scotland, the home of the Scottish Enlightenment, will have much to contribute to future discussions regarding the pursuit of world peace.
Joe Goldblatt is emeritus professor of planned events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is currently serving as a visiting assistant professor at New York University’s Tisch Center of Hospitality.