Politics & Policy

Holy U.N.

Does the U.N. merit a halo?

As a former U.N. correspondent, I confess I am baffled by the attempt of anti-war clerics to confer a halo on my former place of work.

From the Vatican to assorted Protestant leaders around the world, one hears that no attack on Iraq should occur without the blessing of this world body in New York.

Of course, secular critics of President George W. Bush’s course of action — President Jacques Chirac of France and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, for example — have pushed this line with annoying intensity. But that’s another issue. What interests us here is why men of God should confer upon the United Nations an almost celestial status.

I do not wish to belittle the accomplishments of many good U.N. officials out in the field, especially if they work for some of its specialized agencies.

But it is hard for this old-timer to see the holiness in an organization he has observed for so long: the way it fills the universe with empty phrases; the way it slaughters the environment by wasting megatons of paper; the way it foams with the self-importance of its officials and delegates.

Back in the early 1960s, West Germany — not a member then — had a particularly droll observer at the United Nations. He was rocket scientist Wernher von Braun’s younger brother, Sigismund, who liked to describe his position there as that of a voyeur.

“Sigi,” as we called him, was often beside himself with anger when handing Secretary General U Thant a fat check. Non-member West Germany was the second-largest contributor to the United Nations, after the United States, but didn’t have the right to defend itself against verbal attacks from Communist or third-world countries in the General Assembly or Security Council.

“Sigi,” the paymaster, sat quietly seething on the observer’s bench, next to the Vatican’s representative, hoping that an ally would jump to West Germany’s defense. Usually, the U.S. delegate did just that — it’s a shame that Schroeder, then a student, sees no obligation to reciprocate this kindness now that the United States needs friends.

But be that as it may, the United Nations did not seem a halo-lighted place to me in those days — even less so when I foolishly allowed myself to be hired as a consultant at its Geneva headquarters a few years ago.

Such was the pomposity, posturing, lunatic back-biting, inefficiency, bureaucracy, and arrogance I encountered there that after only one week I hopped a plane back to New York, swearing never to have anything to do with the United Nations again. This was quite simply not a suitable environment for a normal human being.

While in Geneva, the only somewhat comforting words I heard came from the lovely lips of my associate, who had just quit her job in one of the administrative offices of the European Union. “If you think this is bad,” she said, “you should try the EU bureaucracy. I am telling you, it’s sheer hell.”

Now, hell is by definition not a holy place, be it global or regional. What in the world is going on in those pious heads that they feel they must glorify the United Nations as a presumed last place of hope?

In a way, I can understand Pope John Paul II. The church he heads is a global enterprise, which has to cohabit with another global enterprise — a secular one.

In the case of all the other religious leaders, though, I suspect that they are driven by wobbly theology. Theologically, it is plain wrong to place an international body on a pedestal so high that it seems to reflect the glory of God.

To be sure, the church must pray for the United Nations, as it has to include all secular authority in its intercessions. But as the past 12 years of the Iraq crisis have shown, the United Nations is so rife with selfish pursuits that it seems almost resistant to divine intervention.

No, whatever the United Nations might be good for, it does not merit canonization.

— Uwe Siemon-Netto is religion editor of United Press International. This piece was written for UPI and is reprinted with permission.


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