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Student Reflections

The Foundations and Legacy of the United Nations

Emerson Johnston
August 5, 2021

The Tuesday of last week marked the end of part one of my Twin Dialogue of Civilizations program and we began part two of our program on Thursday with a virtual tour of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Needless to say, this was one of my favorite parts of the program thus far. 

To be fair, this isn’t the first time I’ve been to or seen the building (after all, I literally co-oped for the US Permanent Mission the United Nations (USUN) right across the street), but it was one of the first times I was able to see all facets of it. Moreover, as someone who would love to work there someday, I found that it was an amazing chance to learn more about its history.

The United Nations sits in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of New York City and has served as the official headquarters for the body since its completion in 1951 (Fun fact: Turtle Bay is an often used metonym for the organization, much like the term “Langely” which references the Central Intelligence Agency). The main building holds the seats of all principal organs of the UN, including two I became very familiar with during my time at USUN, the General Assembly (GA), and the Security Council. The New York Office is supported by three adjunct regional headquarters found in Geneva, Switzerland; Vienna, Austria; and Nairobi, Kenya. 

An important note we learned about the building is its extraterritorial status. Much like a diplomatic embassy, the land occupied by the United Nations Headquarters does not belong to the U.S. government, though it does acknowledge most local, state, and federal laws in exchange for local police and fire protection. 

Our tour took us to the General Assembly Building, the Conference Building, the Secretariat Building, and Dag Hammarskjöld Library. The first houses the United Nations General Assembly (shockingly) and is absolutely breathtaking. Not only is it the largest room in the building but it is flanked by two murals painted by French artist Fernand Leger. Seeing it on Zoom is nothing in comparison to seeing it in person but it still is an awe-inspiring sight. The pillar in the center sits both the President of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid from the Maldives, and the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres from Portugal. The entrance is marked by an inscription by Iranian poet Saadi that reads “the sons of Adam are limbs of each other, having been created of one essence”, which is meant to help strengthen the idea that the United Nations is a place where people of all origins can come together and work without care to their country of origin. 

The next building we visited is known as the Conference Building and holds the UN Security Council chamber. As a co-op with the USUN’s military staff committee, it is this room that I saw the most during my time in New York.

It also hosts the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC Chamber)!

The next building we visited was the Secretariat Building, which hosts the Secretariat organ of the UN. It houses offices for the Secretary-General as well as a number of Under-Secretary-General stationed in New York. Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations’ second Secretary-General, described its power as “what member nations made [of] it, but within the limits set by government action and government cooperation, much depends on what the Secretariat makes it”. Needless to say, it’s very powerful. Importantly, the Secretariat works in a largely creative capacity, meaning it can introduce new ideas, take initiatives, and even put before member governments’ findings which will influence their actions. 

Our tour’s final stop was at the Dag Hammarskjöld Library. Founded in 1946, it was originally simply named “The United Nations Library” and has two functions. Firstly, it is the main depository for United Nations documents and publications and maintains a selected collection of materials of the specialized agencies and United Nations-affiliated bodies. Secondly, the Library collects books, periodicals, and other materials related to the organization’s programs or activities. As of 2021, the library holds 400,000 books, 9,800 newspapers and periodic titles, 80,000 maps, and the Woodrow Wilson Collection containing 8,600 volumes of League of Nations documents, 6,500 related books, and pamphlets. The library’s Economic and Social Affairs Collection is housed in the DC-2 building. 

Overall, the tour was a fascinating look at a body I’ve been lucky enough to work with in the past and hope to work in again. Having now visited the New York headquarters both virtually and in person, I only hope I can do the same for all three of the other regional offices sometime soon.