New York: A UN anniversary

Celebrate the 70th birthday of the United Nations with a tour around its huge headquarters — one of New York's lesser-known delights

By David Whitley
Published 20 Oct 2015, 09:00 BST, Updated 5 Jul 2021, 11:47 BST

Never let it be said that the United Nations is averse to a spot of ham-fisted symbolism. On the back wall of the UN Security Council Chamber, Per Krohg's mural starts all dark and grim at the bottom, with a bird emerging from the ashes. Further up, a couple get married — representing hope for the future — and a horse prances in the supposed spirit of independence.

In front of it, a horseshoe of light blue seats stands empty, ready to welcome the ample backsides of the Security Council members who are about to enter and discuss the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Behind, the hive of interpreters prepares to translate everything into English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Mandarin.

The Security Council Chamber is deep inside the bloated belly of the UN headquarters, on the eastern edge of Manhattan, although technically international territory.

Founded on 24 October 1945, the UN celebrates its 70th anniversary this year and the guided tours around its New York home are designed to shed light on what it does.

The guides are armed with plenty of information. For example, there are 120,000 peacekeepers, engaged in 70 different operations around the world; the Fill The Cup food programme gives girls who attend 80% of their school classes food to take home to their families; the UNMAS operation removes landmines as far afield as Haiti and the Central African Republic; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most translated document in the world, although it's never been legally binding.

This is all well and good, but the most interesting part of the well-meaning traipse around is how things work. The UN is a behemoth, and the main building — the unmissable Le Corbusier-designed blocky skyscraper that dominates the area — is dedicated to the administrative side of things. Around 5,000 people work there.

Seating arrangements in the chambers are fraught with politics too. To stop bickering over who gets the best seats, the UN Secretary General picks a different country at the start of each session to take the first seat. The rest are seated in alphabetical order according to the English version of their country name, which must make for bags of fun when Iraq, Iran and Israel get to cosy up next to each other.

Meanwhile, the collection of art on display is wonderfully endearing — most of it has been donated by member states like grandmas doling out terrible jumpers at Christmas. Outside, Italy has gifted a golden sphere that is split open to show what looks like industrial machinery. Luxembourg has weighed in with a gun that has its barrel twisted into a knot. And the framed rugs bearing portraits of former Secretaries-General have been proudly sent by Iran.

Yet given pride of place inside the humungous General Assembly Hall are two splodgy, abstract murals by Frenchman Fernand Léger. They are, the guide explains, designed to show that lateral thinking and different perspectives are encouraged. And while it's easy to mock the UN on many levels, that's an admirable resolution.


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