It rained the first time I was at the United Nations, just as it rained on a more recent visit.
My partner Bette and I shared an umbrella on the walk from the hotel to the building that I had not seen since I was 9 years old on a vacation with my parents and siblings. Like a lot of families, we had traveled to New York in 1964 to see the World’s Fair. The U.N. headquarters was an added attraction.
The world body, founded Oct. 24, 1945, when Harry S. Truman was president, was only 19 years old when I visited it the first time. My 9-year-old self was absolutely awed by the General Assembly room, where voices coming through headphones spoke in different languages.
We didn’t have to go through metal detectors 51 years ago, have our bags screened, show a government-approved photo ID or wear an identification bracelet. The world has become far less trusting and more prone to violence.
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But the mission of saving succeeding generations from war hasn’t changed as the U.N. approaches its 70th anniversary. The global agency also protects human rights, ensures justice, and promotes social progress and better standards of living.
The U.N. responds to new challenges such as terrorism and the fighting initiated in Syria, Iraq and parts of Africa by Islamic extremists; waves of refugees currently fleeing into Europe from the Middle East and Africa; nuclear threats such as that posed by Iran; climate change with the melting polar ice, rising seas and worsening weather conditions; infectious diseases such as Ebola; and other threats that go beyond national borders.
It also works to provide clean water and good housing, particularly for people in developing countries where finding those basic is often a struggle. Women’s rights and children’s rights in addition to education, medical care, sustainable farming and development also are U.N. concerns.
On our tour, we saw exhibits of the many landmines that have been planted in war-torn parts of the world. I had no idea there were so many types. Many remain undetected for years only to explode when disturbed, killing or maiming children, fishermen and farmers who had no role in the original conflict.
We saw exhibits on efforts to educate children, particularly girls, in countries where that hasn’t been part of the culture. Immunizations also are a huge focus. Childhood diseases that are a thing of the past in the United States still must be eradicated in parts of the globe.
Providing food to the world’s neediest people — particularly refugees fleeing civil war, terrorism and political upheaval — remains on the U.N.’s radar.
We enjoyed the exhibits of past U.N. leaders. Each had his hands full with the conflicts of the world whether it was the Cold War and keeping the planet from nuclear annihilation, the Vietnam War, ending apartheid in South Africa or the current battles with the Islamic State.
We also enjoyed seeing the art that decorated the walls and the exhibits outside the building. The bronze “Non-Violence” or “The Knotted Gun” sculpture is a draw. The pro-peace art of an enlarged .45-caliber revolver by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd was designed in late 1980 and inspired by the shooting death of his friend, John Lennon. If only all guns would end up like this one.
Nearby was “The Ark of Return,” a permanent memorial designed by Rodney Leon and unveiled in March, honoring the victims of the Transatlantic slave trade. It is a solemn piece marking the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
The goal of the exhibit is to get people to never forget the atrocities that the slave trade caused. Never forgetting is part of the U.N.’s post-World War II mission.
The U.N. pools the resources of nations in hopes that people working together will be able to solve global problems in addition to never forgetting the horrors of the past.
Truman, Missouri’s only president, would be proud of what the U.N. has been able to accomplish and the work it continues to do for humankind.