The United Nations

by KARIMA BENNOUME

Sometimes I think the televangelists are right. We are living in the End Times. Last night, I was invited to a reception at the United Nations in New York City to fete the release of an important book about how to use the UN human rights treaty body system. I set foot on UN grounds near the eloquent bronze sculpture donated in 1988 by Luxembourg. Reuterswark’s piece depicts a gun tied into a knot so that its barrel is shunted upwards, rendering it a useless metal pretzel. It serves as an evocative reminder of the UN’s basic purpose, as elaborated in the opening sentence of its Charter: “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war… “

When I reached the police checkpoint just inside the main building, I was stopped by a UN officer. He told me that I could not enter the hallowed hall wearing the small “No War” button affixed to the lapel of the winter coat which covered my suit. I could, he explained, remove the badge, leave it with security and proceed to drink wine in the UN dining hall celebrating the human rights book’s release. As much out of astonishment as principle, I refused. The police officer indicated that if I did not take off the peace pin, I would have to leave. Dumbfounded, I blurted out a few exasperated words to the effect that I was a citizen of a free country and could express myself freely. This, he admonished me correctly, was not my country, but was the United Nations. Actually, all the more reason for me to wear my button, I argued.

But there is a stern sign posted on the way in to the world body now. I do not remember seeing it before. It says that no demonstrations are permitted on UN grounds. The officer reminded me of this fact. How ironic, that the rights to peaceful assembly, to freedom of opinion, thought, expression and conscience, all of which are guaranteed by UN human rights treaties (the very ones illuminated in the book whose launch I had come to commemorate), cannot be enjoyed on the territory controlled by the United Nations, itself. And I had not even come to protest, merely to hobnob with human rights lawyers. I have worn my No War button consistently since mid-January. It is simply a quixotic part of my daily law professor attire.

The standoff at the UN corral lasted a few minutes during which I demanded the officer speak with the organizers of the reception, The Consultative Council of Jewish Organizations, and explain to them why one of their guests, a professor of international law at Rutgers University, would not be in attendance. He refused. Then, I insisted on seeing a supervisor. Dutifully, the officer got on the phone to someone and explained that I was giving him “a hard time.” At last, an African UN policeman arrived and sized up my offending button. It is little more than an inch in diameter. He got on the phone to the supervisor and explained that it was too small to be a problem. Finally, I was allowed through. However, the table knife and fork which accompanied my lunch bag were removed and put into an envelope for safe keeping until my exit. We are living in a time when a tiny No War badge is a threat, when great nations fear that a marauding academic may run amok in the UN building or attack Ambassador Negroponte with a fork. I made it up to the reception but felt too demoralized to celebrate much.

Honestly, I do not blame the United Nations itself, an organization which I revere in many ways and about which I teach my students. For better or for worse, the UN is the one place where everyone is at the table (even if their chairs come in different sizes). And the institution has done much great work in human rights, development, promulgation of international law and peacekeeping, for example. But I do think the UN appears to be drifting off course at the behest of certain powerful states. This process will only worsen should the Security Council adopt a resolution which purports to authorize the use of force against Iraq, a country which the United Nations has absurdly been starving through sanctions and simultaneously struggling to feed through aid in the last decade. If this new Hiroshima (we are told the voltage will be even higher, though probably not nuclear) occurs with real or apparent UN blessing, we should simply remove the knot from Reuterswark’s thwarted pistol. We will also have to edit the UN Charter, effacing the offending preambular language cited above, just as Picasso’s masterful Guernica has been covered so as not to force diplomats to appear in front of its embarrassing brush strokes. In the meantime, I challenge the mostly male diplomats in the Security Council (and I may be willing to provide an exemption to the rep of Angola) to spend one night with their children under aerial bombardment from “smart weapons” before deciding whether the UN should be a tool for peace or a tool for war.

Karima Bennoune is a human rights lawyer and professor of International Law at Rutgers University. She can be reached at: Kbennoune@kinoy.rutgers.edu

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