Wednesday, January 28, 2009

flying saucers

One of my grandfathers used to work for the League of Nations (before WWII) and later for the United Nations. This was one of the reasons I wanted to go to this party in NY, because we were promised a tour of the Headquarters. As it happens I all but missed the tour because I was so absorbed in the beauty of Manhattan in snow.

Night fell short after five. I was twenty minutes late and I had to go in alone, everyone else was already inside. First: I could not find the entrance. It was dark. Near the Plaza was an entrance with a glass booth with two guards with fur hats, but they pointed me to the "visitors entrance", so I walked from 42nd to 47th but the entrance there was closed too. Walking back I saw what I had missed before: the stealth entrance! At 46nd a gate was slightly ajar and behind it was a small white tent with two Polish guys with bear hats who checked my passport and pointed me to the building, hidden behind another white tent in the dark grey night. Inside was a security checkpoint like at the airport. Those guys got very agitated when my phone rang. But they let me in, with all my gear.

I didn't really get to see anything, except the General Assembly with all the sea-green chairs. We were on a mezzanine at the back of the room. On the other side was an old guard, maybe he wasn't that old but I couldn't see him very well because we were in the dark, and he seemed very shaky when one of the people of our party gave him a laser pointer to specify what part of the platform he was talking about when he told us about the red, yellow and green time-traffic lights and the story of Fidel Castro who sabotaged the time-keeping of the assembly by wiping his face with a handkerchief which he then "accidentally" dropped over the lights so that he could not be blamed for not knowing when to stop talking, and hogging the stage for a full 45 minutes ... where was I ... stop talking ... well when the guard pointed the laser pointer it was very shaky. He then said that he was an excellent shot, which we all believed. He was probably still nervous from having the pointer aimed at him before they handed it over. That little red dot did look a bit scary in this entourage ...

The guard told us that the President of the US is the second speaker at the annual meeting of the General Assembly each year. Brazil is the first speaker. At the first annual meeting no-one wanted to be the first speaker, until Brazil volunteered. Since then they have been assigned to be the first speaker every year.

My nephew asked if there had ever been any big fights between countries in that room. The guard answered that there were rarely any displays of animosity. Russian President Khrushchev once got angry and beat on the desk with his shoe. This was the most display of violence that ever happened there.

That explains why a collegue of my grandfather had a terrible disdain for the United Nations. He said they were even worse than the League of Nations; an even more effective instrument for whitewashing injustice. It also reminds me of this story, which I am not too proud of:

During WWII the German oppressor fired Jewish officials from government jobs. This was against the Dutch constitution. People can not be denied employment on the grounds of religion or race. The Dutch government were in a predicament: if they did the right thing and protest this injustice, a conflict with the oppressor would arise. A government in conflict has no right to exist, especially in war time. The democratically chosen government would fall and another government would have to be formed to replace it.

My grandfather, then in his role of advisor on international law, advised the council of Secretary Generals then to let it pass, and said that although firing people for their race or their religion would be against the constitution, there is an opening in the law where people can be allowed to be fired from a job if on the grounds of personal feelings their employers and coworkers can not maintain a neutral working relationship. For this advice he was later criticized and praised at the same time, and after the war he became Secretary General of the Peace keeping court.

I am not sure that I agree with the advice my grandfather gave at all, because it seems to imply that racial hatred is an emotion that can justify illegal actions. Some say this is what the United Nations are all about: to cover up conflicts. It has no real power except when it has the goodwill of all parties involved. To obtain this good-will it needs to do concessions. But should it ever be necessary to do concessions to the truth?

Of one thing I am sure: my other grandfather would not have bought it. He would have beat his shoe on the table or worse. And been thrown out the building, or worse...

And then we had drinks, dinner and dancing, and we watched the fireworks that went on in Chinatown a bit further along the river. It was a beautiful night.

10 comments:

SandyCarlson said...

Your grandfather was in an interesting situation. Dealing with bigotry at that level must be a misery.

Thanks for the tour of the UN. I had been there as a student. Always intrigued by it.

Cloudia said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. The history and the visit to a wintry New York excited many memories!

"the beauty of Manhattan in snow."
Indeed! Aloha-

Indrani said...

Lovely post on your experience at UN. Can't really imagine no violence is displayed, that is what makes 'leaders'!

Interesting reading on how your grandfather handled the tricky situation.

Xiwel said...

A very interesting story. My impression on the UN is like on the EU. They are not above the members, but have to persuade members to co-operate with each other. But the one (i.e. each member) who controls the army and the money remains the boss. With no UN, it will be worse. With no EU, I'm not sury about that. :-)

Reader Wil said...

Good post, bravo or brava... Anyway it's very interesting.

Pietro said...

You have written a very clever report of your journey.
In the Parliaments sometimes (often...) there are displays of animosity and the deputies even come to blows!

Smart Mouth Broad said...

This was a very interesting history lesson. It's tough to make the right decision when there are so many extenuating circumstances. And I loved the way you ended it with light-hearted drinking, dancing and fireworks.

steviewren said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on both of your grandfathers. It is hard to do the right thing for the few and the many at the same time. Being truthful is not always what people want to hear. I like reading your thoughts on their struggles.

Nihal said...

This article includes some lessons in it. Looking the most recent happenings, can you tell that UN has a 'function' today?

thyme said...

Hi, thank you all. I'm sorry for being a bit absent, just taking a short break, I will be back.

Nihal, yes, I think the UN have as much a role to play now as the meetings of the old Celts, our European ancestors, yours and mine, did in the old days. Athough the Celts were notorious fighters, they were highly democratic and sensitive diplomats. They had a highly developed sense of justice. A (hu)man a (hu)man, a word a word. Talking wins, loses, prevents or incites battles. As much now as it did then.