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  • Writer's pictureCharlotte DUFOUR

Nurturing the original spirit of the United Nations

Thoughts from a bus in Geneva

This year’s United Nations General Assembly has come and gone. The few media headlines about the event were about the “divisions in the international community”, the “crisis of multilateralism” fueled by Trump’s isolationist policies (including headlines on world leaders’ reaction to his speech…), the tensions over the Iran deal, the need to reform the UN system…

And yet… there is another side to the United Nations… one that is perhaps forgotten, or even worse, taken for granted. A spirit that I see timidly living on when I come to Geneva, an increasingly regular occurrence due to my involvement in several initiatives here.

I see it most of all when taking the bus to and from the Palais des Nations (Palace of Nations), home to various United Nations organizations. First, the passengers: the first time I took the bus and was confused where to go, it was a lovely woman from Namibia, working in human rights, who showed me which ticket to buy and where to get off. Another time, a 5 year old girl visibly from Latin America (she was accompanied by her grandmother, who spoke only Spanish and seemed to be from the Andean region) was entertaining the whole bus with her singing as she gazed out the window “if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands!”. I could also overhear a conversation between a lady from the Philippines and a North American talking about French politics. This morning, I looked around and saw families from various parts of Africa, a Japanese couple, a friendly lady (maybe from the Middle East?) expecting a baby… All this global microcosm shared the mundane space of a bus on a Saturday morning, driving past the World Health Organisation, the International Labour Office, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Palais des Nations, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees…

The bus drives around the esplanade that lies in front of the entrance of the Palais which is lined with the flags of the 193 countries that compose the United Nations. This esplanade, decorated with built-in water fountains and a gigantic “Broken chair” sculpture, hosts all kinds of demonstrations in defense of all kinds of human rights. This morning, about 60 people were protesting for a better implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with a focus on deaf people’s needs. As the bus drove around the curve, I witnessed with curiosity this powerfully silent demonstration conducted in sign language, where the crowd applauded by raising and energetically twisting their hands in the air. Last time I came, there was a demonstration in favor of Pakistani Christians. A previous time, it was about Palestinian refugees. How many causes has this place seen? How many passionate and committed cries for action has it heard?

The names of the organizations we drive past, the campaign slogans or exhibition titles posted on their walls or by bus stops also express in various ways the ideals of individuals from all nations who come together to make this world a better place, who affirm their vision for a common destiny where each man and women, boy and girl, can be respected, well fed, healthy, educated, and fulfilled.

There are ample reasons to be cynical: the bureaucracy and lack of efficiency of these institutions, the persistent and growing inequities, the seemingly unresolvable conflicts, the “two-faced” policies of many governments. How many of the demonstrations by the “broken chair” are being heard and acted upon?

And yet, these institutions – together with their partners in civil society, businesses and others – and, most importantly, the people who strive to make them work are united by their refusal to give up, to surrender to the forces that could make one think “Why bother? We’ll never make it any way.”

The image comes to my mind of friends’ testimony of their experience during the genocide in Rwanda. At the worst of the crisis, the ICRC offices remained open. There was little aid workers could do in the face of the horror- nothing that could ever be enough. But the ICRC flag that kept flying amidst the horror was a reminder that someone out there – though overwhelmed – still cares. That someone still believes that at some point, humanity and life will prevail.

So while we can criticize the limitations, the failures, the cynicism, the hypocrisy of what takes place in United Nations-related fora – and yes, the UN must be reformed – we should also reconnect to that original spirit which, for the first time in the history of mankind, made men and women from all parts of the world come together and affirm their desire to live together in peace.

Recent history and current affairs demonstrate that the achievement of peace is not a set destination or end state, but rather a continuous journey that will last for centuries and probably millennia to come, with its ups and downs. And so, it is all the more important to reaffirm every day and every moment, our desire to live in peace, and to embody this vision in our every word and action.
That is why I share here the preamble of the United Nations charter – a charter which was drafted in the midst of World War 2 and signed at its immediate outset, reminding us that even in the darkest night, light can prevail.

“We the peoples of the United Nations determined
· to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
· to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
· to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
· to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

And for these ends:
· to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
· to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
· to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
· to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,

Have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.
Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.”

And for a more political reading of why “An imperfect UN is still the world’s best hope” you can read this very interesting UK Reuters commentary.
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