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Educating Americans About the United Nations - 2004-07-07

The United Nations -- born in response to the horrors of two global wars -- was created with critical assistance from the United States. Today the United Nations plays a role in countless activities around the world. Yet many Americans feel distant from the world body and some have even called for the United States to pull out of the organization altogether. VOA's Brent Hurd reports on one organization that aims to bolster support for the United Nations and educate Americans about its activities.

Dag Hammerskjöld, a former Secretary-General of the United Nations, once said that "everything will be all right when people stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction and see it as a drawing they made themselves."

Analysts say in some ways, the United Nations still struggles with this image today -- especially in the United States. Often the recipient of bad press or late night talk show jokes, the United Nations is an organization that many Americans know little about.

The UN Association is part of an effort to bring the world body closer to every day people. Known as the people's movement for the United Nations, the world federation of UN Associations is a global network of hundreds of thousands of people linked in over 100 UN member states.

Michael Dumlao works with the UN Association chapter here in Washington, one of the most active in the United States. “If the United Nations is an entity comprised of countries, the United Nations Association is an entity comprised of civic organizations and individual citizens who are passionate about global issues and are supportive of the United Nations. In its very early stages, the United Nations Association of the USA in a lot of ways was a gateway for participation of civil organizations, individuals and academics to fundamentally make sure that the United States was at the forefront in the leadership of the United Nations and its programs.”

UN Associations work at the grass roots with many UN programs involving human rights, health, the environment, peacekeeping and security. Mr. Dumlao will spend the next few months working to strengthen the UN Association of Ghana. One of his colleagues is now in Baghdad re-invigorating the Iraqi UN Association. The UN Associations also works to educate policy makers and the general public about the United Nations. Pat Cutting, a 73-year-old poet and former philosophy professor, recently met with Utah's newest member of the US congress, Rob Bishop, to discuss the subject. “What we are doing today is promoting the United Nations and just to let him (Rob Bishop) know there is broad support here in Utah (for the United Nations). It's a little bit of a problem here in Utah because there is an anti-United Nations faction that is quite vocal. So we feel it's very necessary to speak up.”

Not everything the United Nations does is widely admired, and some accuse it of threatening US power. Many Americans who supported the Iraq war were disappointed when the UN Security Council failed to pass a resolution authorizing military action.

Steve Weber, a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley, says “You will hear people argue that the United Nations somehow undermines US sovereignty by creating a forum where US national decisions are exposed to the criticisms and conversations of others who don't agree with us. I don't think that is an undermining of sovereignty. It is simply a place where that conversation takes place. One might even consider the argument that allowing people to air those concerns becomes an extremely useful set of signaling mechanisms by which U-S decision makers can get a better sense about what the world thinks about what we are doing.”

Professor Weber adds that some Americans do not realize that some projects they applaud are conducted by the United Nations. “I would be curious to know how many Americans actually know that UNICEF is actually a branch of the United Nations. And the welfare programs that UNICEF runs for children around the world are actually a significant piece of what the United Nations does.

And there is much more than that, says Paula Boland, who leads a young professionals program at the Washington-based UN Association chapter. “There is a lot of work that people don't know about including humanitarian activities that are being carried out all over the world.”

How to bring the United Nations to life for people who are uncertain about it? One way is the UN Association's simulated United Nations in which students can play the part of delegates, explains UNA's Adam DiClemente: “In Model United Nations, the rules are just like the regular United Nations. Lets say I was representing Cuba, I would assume the foreign policy of Cuba and everything I would say would be trying to achieve what my nation, in this case Cuba, would want. The goal is to write a resolution, and having only one or two days in the simulation allows you to really see the flaws and strengths of international order.”

Such programs are examples of how the United Nations Association and other organizations provide hands-on experience to illustrate the work of the United Nations and garner support for it in the United States and around the world.