The United Nations has come in for some harsh criticism at the Republican convention. With the convention site only a few kilometers from the United Nations building in New York, U.N. officials seized the opportunity to counter the criticism by offering delegates special tours and educational briefings. More than 1,500 Republicans signed up for the tours.
Sitting in the grand chamber of the Security Council, a group of Republican Party delegates is hearing about how the Council's 15 member countries makes decisions that affect the entire world.
The night before, these same Republicans sat in the convention hall, a few-kilometers away, and heard California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger describe support for the world body as a defining issue separating Republicans and Democrats. "If you believe this country, not the United Nations, is the best hope of democracy in the world, then you are a Republican," he said.
Other speakers were more direct in their criticisms, often drawing boos from the crowd when the name "United Nations" was mentioned.
Vice-President Dick Cheney roused the delegates when he said "President Bush would never seek a permission slip to defend the American people". Democratic Senator Zell Miller, crossing party lines, criticized his own party's candidate, John Kerry. "Senator Kerry said he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations. Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending. I want Bush to decide," he said.
Among the Republicans who accepted the U.N. tour offer were hundreds of college students. After hearing what both sides had to say, Alison Aikele, 23, of the western state of Idaho said she finds some validity in both positions. "I think the United Nations is a great idea and it is good to have an international perspective, but I do not think the United States has to answer to the United Nations as a rule of law. When it comes to our own safety and security, I trust our president to make the decision that's going to keep me and my family safe, and if the international community sometimes doesn't agree, then that is the way it is," she said.
Another convention-goer, retired State Department official Bert Tollefson agreed. Mr. Tollefson, who lives in the western state of Arizona, said Republicans were upset at portrayals of the United States as a warmonger, during U.N. debates on Iraq. "I do think objectively we are supportive of the United Nations, but some people were disappointed in proceedings of the United Nations. There's reasons for it, points on both sides, but particularly in the case of France and Germany, their postures were such that it did not reflect well on the U.N.," he said.
U.N. officials have been cautious in reacting to the Republican-convention criticisms. Spokesman Stephane Dujarric would only say that those who visited U.N. headquarters were well-informed. "They were extremely well informed about how the U.N. actually works, and how the member states interact with each other, and the issues that are high on the U.N. agenda," he said.
Organizers of the tours say they have paid off in terms of a greater understanding of the world body among a group that is inclined to be suspicious. Christina LoNigro of the U.N. Foundation says reactions from the Republican visitors has been encouraging. "You ask somebody what they think of the United Nations, at one point, they may give you an unfavorable position, and then you educate them a little bit on what the United Nations accomplishes, and its unbelievable work, around the world, humanitarian, peace and security, and give them a really a better education on what it is and does, the favorable rating of the United Nations really jumps up," she said.
She said the tours have gone a long way in dispelling myths about the world body among an influential group of Americans.
A shorter version of the tour is also available to the public. Hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world come to U.N. headquarters each year to learn about the organization's many activities.