United Amidst the Differences

Last week, the leaders of the free world gathered at United Nations HQ in New York for their annual General Assembly meeting (15-30 September 2022). Luckily for me, I managed to take the public tour when I was there in Jul 2022.

United Nations HQ

And UN diplomats have been quietly busy in the background while their leaders took to the stage last week for the 77th session. These have been a crazy couple of weeks – there’s three hurricanes/typhoons/cyclones that ravaged the respective regions, two state funerals and a war that has lasted almost the whole year.

Avenue of the flags

The United Nations (UN), the 193-member forum for discussions of international issues, was founded in 1945. The flags are raised manually by UN Security officers every weekday morning at approximately 8am and lowered every weekday at around 4pm, except in the cases of bad weather. The flags are organized in English alphabetical order from north to south. On weekends, only the UN flag is raised. In case you are wondering, there are 194 flags (193+1 UN flag) and Singapore is about right in the middle.

It is a great place to see many gifts brought by international members over the years of UN history; see special exhibits about important issues, such as human rights, climate change, women’s rights, and more. Even though the building is housed in a major US city, the United Nations is considered international territory. But you would need your passport for foreigners to get into UN, and you need to book the tour in advance. No exception, only a passport is recognised by UN.

Silk Portraits of the Secretary-General

Once you enter into the lobby of the building, you will be greeted by this row of portraits of the past Secretary-Generals of the United Nations. These portraits were a gift of silk textile from the Persian region. The artist, Sajjad Sarikhan, works in the style of the Tabriz Carpet, a style that incorporates incredibly fine knots that increase the rug density and fine strength.

The role of the Secretary-General is described as combining the functions and responsibilities of an advocate, diplomat, civil servant, and chief executive officer. The UN Charter designates the secretary-general as the “chief administrative officer” of the UN and allows them to perform “such other functions as are entrusted” by other United Nations organs. The Charter also empowers the secretary-general to inform the Security Council of “any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security”. These provisions have been interpreted as providing broad leeway for officeholders to serve a variety of roles as suited to their preferences, skill set, or circumstances

Security Council

Unfortunately the UN Security Council was in session, therefore we could only stand outside the Security Council Chamber, donated by the Norwegian, and watched the monitor for the session in progress. Of course they were debating on the Ukraine-Russian conflict. Russia, being a permanent member of the UNSC, has veto rights, so whatever resolution raised to be passed by the rest of the members of the councils will be vetoed.

Security Council Chamber

Hence the loophole of the UNSC system. The same five permanent states (US, UK, France, Russia and China) have been the Permanent Members since its inception, but their influence in the world affairs have not been the same. There’s no representation of South America or Africas. But ruling the world has never been a democratic thing, has it?

Ironically, right outside the chamber that is supposed to promote peace among nations is an exhibition of some of the weapons used in wars and conflicts around the world, and some artefacts from the fields used by UN Peacekeeping forces.

Trusteeship Council

Some nations were not born peacefully, others have the Trusteeship Council to help see their transition to nationhood. The Trusteeship Council suspended its operations on 1 November 1994, a month after the independence of Palau, the last remaining United Nations trust territory. Read on and you will understand why Taiwan or Hong Kong will never get their independence through the UN.

Trusteeship Council Chamber

When the UN Headquarters were constructed in the early 1950s, the first Secretary-General of the UN, Trygve Lie (1896 – 1968) of Norway, invited Denmark to design the Trusteeship Council Chamber interior. The government of Denmark commissioned Danish architect Finn Juhl to design the chamber.

No more in use for Trusteeship Council

By a resolution adopted on 25 May 1994, the Council amended its rules of procedure to drop the obligation to meet annually and agreed to meet as occasion required — by its decision or the decision of its President, or at the request of a majority of its members or the General Assembly or the Security Council. So far none has been called because a) the nations wannabe could not get enough support, or b) the decision has been vetoed by members of the Security Council.

The room has a horseshoe-shaped seating arrangement (R), which is an egalitarian approach to show that all the members are on the same level. In the delegates area, the walls are lined with ash wood to improve the acoustics. There are clear, contrasting colors to decorate the air-conditioning units in the latticed ceilings. The multicolored striped carpet, curtains, railing doors and latticed ceiling were made in Denmark. The ceiling colors echo the striped carpet.

This wooden sculpture “Mankind and Hope” (L) was carved for the Trusteeship Council Chamber and was donated by the Danish Government. Created by Danish sculptor Henrik Starcke (1899 – 1973) of Copenhagen, an inventive, imaginative artist who often worked with unusual materials such as flint, gravel, brick, and rusty nails.

The artist wrote of this work, “As the natural growth of the trunk of the tree, used in the sculpture, gives promise of a still greater life, so do I hope to inspire in those present the realization of the great human dream. The bird above the figure, with its wings spread, suggests unlimited flight upward to greater heights. The arms of the figure itself are spread out in the same spirit as the wings of the bird, and I hope this might convey the appeal for the compassion for the weak, the unfortunate, and the oppressed.”

Economic and Social Council

The Economic and Social Council is one of the six principal organs of the United Nations. It coordinates the economic and social areas among member states and is a central forum for discussing international issues and formulates policy recommendations addressed to member states and the UN system. 

Economic and Social Chamber

The Economic and Social Council Chamber is a gift from Sweden, and is one of three Scandinavian countries to furnish the 3 principal organ chambers of the UN. Designed in the 1950s by Swedish architect Sven Markelius (1889 – 1972), the ECOSOC chamber has a horse-shoe shaped table for delegates overlooked by an area for the press and general public. 

Engaging in dialogue while sitting in designer chairs.

The curtain designed by painter Ann Edholm (1953 –) titled “Dialogos”, is comprised of interlocking orange and white wedges, meant to represent a visual abstraction of dialogue – the foundation of democratic discourse. Included in Sweden’s gift are the marble floors, carpet, fireproof wooden walls, chairs by interior Elias Svedberg (1913 – 1987), and custom designed ceiling. 

Delegate seatings with their country name plates

At this juncture, I would like to describe a couple of things that you would not notice when you watch the news coverage of UN proceedings. We always see the white letters on a black background that proudly display the country which the delegate represents. On closer look, they are not physical name placards but electronic ones. The seating arrangements change according to meetings and sequence of speeches.

Translators booths

The proceedings of the meetings are simultaneous translated into official the six official UN languages (Arabic, English, Chinese, French, Russian, Spanish), these corp of translators have the vital role that the translation services in upholding multilingualism at the United Nations. The close to 900 staff members who make up those services across the Secretariat have always been the guardians of multilateral diplomacy.

The General Assembly

And finally, the last Chamber that is opened for public viewing if there is no meeting, the creme de la creme of the meeting rooms, The General Assembly Hall.

The General Assembly

The General Assembly is the main deliberative, policymaking and representative organ of the UN. All 193 Member States of the UN are represented in the General Assembly, making it the only UN body with universal representation. Each year, in September, the full UN membership meets in the General Assembly Hall in New York for the annual General Assembly session, and general debate, which many heads of state attend and address. Here, every nation is equal and has only one vote.

The grandeur of the General Assembly

Decisions on important questions, such as those on peace and security, admission of new members and budgetary matters, require a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly. Decisions on other questions are by simple majority.  The General Assembly, each year, elects a GA President to serve a one-year term of office. Csaba Kőrösi is a Hungarian diplomat currently serving as President of the 77th United Nations General Assembly #UNGA.

“The Scrambled Eggs”, by Fernard Léger (mixed media on plaster on metal mesh)

The United Nations General Assembly Hall is flanked by two large murals designed by French artist Fernand Léger (1881 – 1955). The mural on the east wall consists of red, white and dark blue organic shapes on a dark grey background. Upon seeing the mural in 1952, President Harry S. Truman from USA, referred to it as “Scrambled Eggs”, thus dubbing a long-standing nickname for the work.

“Bugs Bunny”, by Fernard Léger (mixed media on plaster on metal mesh)

The mural on the west wall is a free-form creation in blue, white and orange on a dark grey base. US President Harry S. Truman called it “Bugs Bunny”, and the nickname has stuck since. For these two murals, Leger was unable travel to the United States himself. Leger made the designs and prepared two maquettes of the murals but then gave them to his former student, Bruce Gregory (1917 – 2002), who traveled and executed the two murals.  

Art in the UN

This mural, entitled “Mankind’s Struggle for a Lasting Peace“, was one of the first artworks to be installed at the United Nations. Jose Vela Zanetti (1913 – 1999), from the Dominican Republic, offered to paint a mural in the United Nations during his Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. It was unveiled on 19 March 1953. In the artist’s words, “These symbols cry out, pray, praise and condemn, but altogether they represent the hope of man for achieving peace.”

The mural begins with the destruction of a family and ends with its resurrection. Concentration camps, bombings, and all the agony of modern war are symbolized in the painting. In the centre is a gigantic four-armed figure implanting the emblem of the United Nations on a building dome, as mankind reconstructs a war-torn world. 

Tepak Sireh, donated by Mahathir in 2003

This gift from our neighbour Malaysia is a container, called Tepak Sireh, and also comprises several other covered vessels or “”cembul””, which holds the betel nut, leaves and other related condiments. Betel chewing is a social custom practiced across Asia, including Malaysia. It is a symbol of welcome and hospitality. Artist unknown, the burlesque piece was quite a show of wealth and opulence, and IMHO quite inappropriate as a gift for the UN as betel chewing is one of the major cause of gum and throat cancers in Asia.

Poseidon of Artemision in front of the mural of “Brotherhood”

This classical bronze statue is a replica of a classical sculpture of Poseidon (circa 460 B.C.E.).  The original sculpture (Hellenistic period) was discovered in 1926 and unearthed in 1928 from the bottom of the sea off the coast of the Cape of Artemision, Greece. The original resides in the National Archeological Museum, in Athens, Greece. This elegant and balanced figure is the embodiment of beauty, control, and strength. The figure is shown in full heroic nudity and is attributed to the work of a great sculptor, possibly Kalamis, of the 5th century B.C. 

Behind the sculpture, this mural painting, entitled “Brotherhood” (“”La Fraternidad””) by Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo (1899 – 1991) has at the centre a large fire in red, surrounded by human figures with interlaced arms. At the left is a large dark Mexican pyramid and on the right is a structure. Tamayo said “Brotherhood” was in the spirit of the United Nations, which stands for peace among the peoples of the world. He added, there is no better symbol for love than fire which is an important symbol in his work. The figures are “to make sure we all belong to the only valid race, which is the human race.”

Life size model of the first Russian Sputnik

This is a life-size model of the first Sputnik hanging from the ceilings of the main lobby. Sputnik was the world’s first artificial Earth satellite and man-made object to orbit the earth. It was launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, orbited for three weeks before its batteries died, and completed 1,400 revolutions of the earth before disintegrating in the atmosphere on 4 January 1958. It was a 58 cm (23 in) diameter polished metal sphere, with four external radio antennas to broadcast radio pulses. The model is a symbol of the scientific and technical achievements of mankind in the exploration of outer space.

Sphere within Sphere, by Arnaldo Pomodoro (1926 – ), (Bronze, sculpture)

In the gardens is a gift from Italy of a bronze sculpture depicts two interlocked spheres entitled “Sphere within Sphere” by Arnaldo Pomodoro (1926 – ), this piece is one in a series of similar works displayed across the world. The sculpture was designed for the Vatican and is also displayed in Dublin, Tel Aviv, and the Italian Parliament. The form depicts the globe of Earth itself. This complex work of art, composed of a sphere growing inside another sphere, can be read as a symbol of the emergence of a new world from the old.

Non Violence, by Carl Frederk Reutersward (Bronze, sculpture)

“Non-Violence” is a bronze sculpture of a 45-calibre revolver with its barrel tied in a knot. The gun is cocked, but the knot makes it clear that it cannot shoot. Artist Carl Frederk Reutersward made the sculpture in 1980 after his friend, John Lennon, was murdered. He said, “I became so upset and angry over his death and many other outbursts of unnecessary violence that I went right to my studio and started working on the project ‘Non-Violence’.”  

The sculpture at the United Nations was one of the first three versions of the sculpture. It was originally placed at the Strawberry Fields memorial in New York City’s Central Park, across the street from where Lennon and Ono lived. Donated to the UN by Luxembourg in 1988, and it’s appropriate to end the tour with this sculpture.

Where does the UN go from here

After the visit I stepped out into the hot and humid New York summer, standing under the fluttering Singapore flag, wondered to myself, “Is the UN still relevant in this time and age?”

Singapore flag fluttering in the wind

2022 is a really challenging time for UN as an organisation that is coordinating peace and stability among a wider backdrop of protectionism and nationalism. But it is important for a small city state like Singapore to have a big brother like UN as a leverage to issues relevant to us. While many would argue, UN is no longer as influential as before, it is definitely no irrelevant.

Visited in Jul 2022

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