193 colourful flags are aligned in front of an isolated 166-metre high glass-covered skyscraper on 1st Avenue, Manhattan. We are about to enter each one of these countries which flag is waving in front of the building of the Headquarters of the United Nations in New York City, where world changing decisions are made.
We are taking in the symbolism of the art pieces offered by some of the member countries and some of which are showcased on the vast square overlooking the East River. Visitors are taking selfies in front of the Swedish Knotted Gun and the Italian Sphere within a Sphere.
More artwork is displayed as we enter one of the four Headquarters of the UN (New York City, Vienna, Geneva, and Nairobi). It is this very building in Manhattan that world-changing decisions have been made under the supervision of the UN Secretary-General (currently, Ban Ki-moon, who is finishing his last year in this position). Since the creation of the United Nations right after World War II in October 1945, its member states have donated very symbolic art pieces to the organization.
With its main mission that is to sustain cooperation between countries to maintain world peace, the UN Headquarters is far more than an art gallery. We follow quietly our mandatory guide, entering the mythical Security Council, probably the UN strongest organ with five permanent members (France, the USA, the UK, Russia and China). “Another 10 elected countries join, with two-year term”, our guide explains. In this room resolutions are adopted, embargoes discussed, sanctions defined, peace keeping missions designed and military interventions voted for or against.
We enter another room which I recognize from Malala’s famous speech in 2013: the Trusteeship Council. At first created to focus on decolonisation, it now serves mainly for meeting purposes.
With every step in this UN headquarters, it gets clearer how the UN functions and how powerful the organisation is. It is in the middle of the Economic and Social Council Chamber that our guide explains how this part of the UN focuses on development, education, healthcare, etc. It coordinates UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Food Programme…, just to name a few. Initiatives like Free Rice aims at fighting famine. Sponsored by private companies, everyone can take a few quizzes, and for every correct answer 10 grains of rice are donated to feed those in need.
Walking under the half open ceiling that symbolizes the fact that the work of the United Nations is never really completed, we walk past an exhibition about the peace-keeping blue helmets. Further, we are appalled by the numbers of weapons, worldwide. With some remnants of the nuclear bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, this exhibit sensitizes visitors about the importance of disarmament.
Lastly, we visit the General Assembly Chamber where heads of states meet every September to discuss world’s issues and define the year’s agenda.
With ongoing conflicts in the world, terrorism, wars, poverty, famine, diseases and climate change, the UN’s work will indeed never be really completed and visiting its Headquarters here in New York City makes everyone aware of the challenges the world faces today and understand how one of its most powerful organs functions to try and make it a safe place for all.
Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen
- Refer to the website of the UN for opening hours, guided tours and additional information.
- Don’t forget a valid photo ID or passport to get your security pass at the UN Visitors Check-in Office at 801 First Avenue (Corner of 45th Street).
- If you bring your passport, make sure to visit the UN post office to get the unique UN stamp. You can also send postcards with the international UN stamp.
- It is possible to enter the UN HQ to get your passport stamped, visit the exhibits and artworks and discover the Visitors Centre. It is mandatory to join a paid guided tour (available in many different languages) to visit the different meeting rooms .
- We strongly recommend you to visit the bookstore and shop.
- To get the GPS-powered version of this article in GPSmyCity, click on this link!
- Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!
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