Professor Joe Goldblatt
“I am sorry, but we are unable to visit the Security Council assembly room today due to an urgent meeting.” When the experienced United Nations tour guide offered this apology, suddenly the gravity of the situation in Ukraine finally came home to roost. Our small group of tourists, who were among the very first to visit the United Nations New York City Hedquarters, were suddenly stunned into immediate silence when our guide from Ghana made this statement with the casualness of a toilet being closed for cleaning.
The United Nations was born immediately following World War Two and countries all over the world sought to be the host of the official headquarters. However, thanks to the philanthropic beneficence of John D Rockefeller, 18 acres of land was secured on the east side of Manhattan and it was agreed that New York City would be the future home of the UN. Ironically, the land that was purchased by the man who is widely considered to be the wealthiest American of all time, was at that time home to a series of slaughterhouses. Within a very short time frame, a place reserved for butchery became re – consecrated to try to preserve world peace.
The UN headquarters in New York City has 5000 full time employees including their tour guides. Prior to the pandemic the tour guides conducted an industrial action to try and convince the UN that their positions should be reserved solely for full time employees. They were successful and today most of the posts are held by fully trained, eperienced and full time guides with a few posts reserved for part time staff.
Over 250,000 visitors annually explored the history of the United Nations prior to the global pandemic. The numbers were dramatically reduced during the pandemic due to closures and also reduced capacity for hosting visitors. However, in our group there were visitors from the Netherlands, Israel, Brazil and Scotland that confirmed that hope is on the horizon regarding the return of international tourists.
The budget for the United Nations is slightly over three billion US dollars and the largest contributors are the United States, China, Japan and Germany who jointly contribute nearly fifty percent of the total annual funding. The level of support for each member country is calculated based upon a complex formula that include GDP and many other factors.
During our one hour tour, the guide focused over and over again on the theme of world peace and then he was asked why despite the evidence of the tragedies of war from World War I to more recently Ukraine, war continues to be the choice of some countries. The guide rolled his eyes up and then quietly answered “I suppose that self protection has always been part of the DNA of mankind.”
I then asked how many females were currently official delegates to the United Nations and he mentioned that this number fluctuates because all delegates are appointed by their home countries. However, he added that 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. This is the room where the world’s representatives here internationally promiment 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. Heartbreaking remnants of a 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 this corridor prior to voting and in addition, I hoped that every high school student in New York City should 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 ‘get in tuch’ with the leader of the UN and we shall then take our seat among other nations as number 194 among the peace makers. However, to finally have the opportunity get in touch we shall first and foremost need to stay in touch with our own future ambitions for a more peaceful world.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is currently serving as Visiting Assistant Professor at the New York University Jonathan M Tisch Center of Hospitality in the School of Professional Studies in New York City.