How does one write about the 60th anniversary of the United Nations next week, and get beyond its battered public image? Especially since that image has been greatly formed by lies, rumors and testaments disguised in verbal formalities, including the world-televised disgrace of Colin Powell presenting the Bush administration's bogus WMD graphics?
Straddling that question last week, I was interrupted by the voice of a 93-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Studs Terkel, on a late evening TV news show.
When he was asked what scares him the most about the world in which we live, he essentially said that too many of us have lost our memory, which affects our collective intelligence and our sense of decency.
The creation of the United Nations 60 years ago arrived upon the memory of atrocities and destruction in world wars. Founders stretched to forge a bond of human decency between nation-states that could override war as the first solution to conflict and create a system for addressing world problems.
From the Beginning
Retired Undersecretary of the United Nations Sir Brian Urquhart, who will deliver the keynote at the United Nations Association of Maine's celebration of the body's 60th at the Portland Museum of Art this week, was there from the beginning.
At the end of World War II, Sir Brian had been a British army major when he arrived at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
"The first thing I saw about Belsen," he once told a interviewer, "was when we were driving along a little country road and there was a big, high fence in the distance on a corner in the road with what appeared to be logs stacked inside it. And as we got nearer, it suddenly became clear to me these were not logs, these were human corpses . . . something like 15,000 or 20,000 unburied corpses at Belson."
When world leaders, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Sir Winston Churchill, began to plan and invent the United Nations, Urgquhart read the charter stating the purpose and structure of the organization and said he thought the sun had come out.
He told an interviewer at the Institute of International Studies that such a peacekeeping, international organization was important for, ". . . people like me who had seen what human beings can actually do to each other during a war, and the incredible destructiveness of modern weapons, and the total ruin of whole continents.
"Particularly after the Belsen experience," he added, "I felt extremely strongly that human rights were something, which simply had to be developed into an international rule. It simply wasn't good enough to try to rely on people to behave reasonably well: they don't. The Nazis were an extreme, but they are not unique."
Also serving the United Nations from its birth was former assistant undersecretary Bruce Stedman of Westport, Maine. He was aboard ship in the U.S. Navy when he first read about the U.N. Charter in 1945, in back issues of the New Yorker magazine's "Talk of the Town" section.
"I decided that if I survived the war, which seemed unlikely, because we had seen major battles, I decided I would work for that outfit. The bomb dropped, the war was over and I moved heaven and earth to get hired. It was pure idealism and no regrets."
American ideals formed the foundation for the U.N. system that also included the International Court of Justice as well as specialized relief agencies. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, pioneered by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, was adopted by the United Nations in 1948.
Today, America refuses to sign onto the International Criminal Court, created to try crimes by individuals against humanity.
Rwandan and Serbian leaders have been on trial by the ICC for atrocities against their own people and Sudan is being investigated for atrocities in Darfur.
President Bush attended the U.N. Summit last month with a little less of a cowboy attitude than the pre-Iraqi war days, but he was flanked by his anti-U.N. appointee, John R. Bolton.
Further, the United States is insisting that the countries signing onto the ICC, including the poorest ones like Niger, sign an immunity agreement protecting Americans from prosecution.
Our nation is threatening withdrawal of aid to allies like Kenya and Nigeria for AIDS education, anti-drug and anti-terror programs that impact American and world health and safety and food to starving Niger.
"We are losing our credibility and respect and that's a terrible thing to lose" said Stedman of this administration's head-butting antics at the United Nations and in the world.
Only 60 years, and our memory is going. It is scary to think what might be next.
Victoria Mares-Hershey is director of development at Portland West (Maine). She also is a member of the Maine Arts Commission and is a founder and the director of the Institute for Practical Democracy.
© 2005 Portland Press Herald