This past weekend, I, along with nine other students from Peace Fellowship, had the privilege to head to New York City for a three day seminar hosted by Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) office at the United Nations (U.N.).
The U.N. is a globally essential organization that does an incredible amount of work to promote peace worldwide. Made up of 193 member states, the U.N. has served as a forum for world cooperation since the end of World War II and thus far has succeeded in preventing another World War. Though the role of peacekeeping troops is probably the U.N.’s most publicized action, their work toward ending colonialism, enabling economic progress, and peacefully negotiating and preventing conflicts is much more important and happens on a daily basis.
There is still a lot of work to do. I found a few quite striking statistics regarding the rampant global militarism that the U.N. attempts to combat. Any guess as to how much a land mine costs? I initially guessed around $100, but, startlingly, landmines are available for as little as three U.S. dollars — the same as a large cup of coffee in Common Grounds. In addition, though most countries worldwide have banned mines, the United States hasn’t signed the Ottawa agreement and is the largest producer of landmine parts worldwide. Weapons are cheap, and the U.N. is underfunded. In terms of budget, the U.N. has what would seem to be a hearty budget of 2.7 billion U.S. dollars a year, but this is dwarfed by the $4.9 billion spent worldwide on weapons a day. That is right — the world spends almost double the U.N.’s yearly budget on violence every single day. If the world wants to be serious about peace, it is time for governments to put their wallets where their mouths are.
There certainly remain a number of drawbacks about the U.N. Participation is essentially voluntary, and the U.N. is not an international government — it has very little ability to hold nations accountable when they act against the will of the world body. Though this is disheartening, an even more glaring issue with the U.N.’s format is the overbalance of power given to the five permanent members of the security council — the United States, Russia, China, France, and Great Britain — who have veto power over all military decisions made by the U.N. This Eurocentric setup gives huge preference to western European countries that are dwarfed in population by nations like India, Indonesia, and Brazil. Latin America and Africa are both totally unrepresented in this powerful five. It is time for this to change.
Moving on from the U.N., the seminar hosted by MCC’s staff was quite enlightening, focusing on immigration with an emphasis on Central America. The MCC office in New York has four employees who all work closely with members of the U.N. and other noon governmental organizations on key policy issues — immigration, for example. The main takeaway for me from our discussion was the concept of push and pull factors that lead to immigration. We in the United States often think of the “pulls” that the United States has for immigrants: political and religious freedom, good economic and educational opportunities, etc., but we often forget about the “pushes” that immigrants also experience: political and religious repression, lack of economic possibilities, violence, famine, and sectarian violence. And, if we think of the “pushes” at all, we do not think of our output of landmines or CIA-backed coups as part of the problem. In reality, the history of U.S. policy in Central America is one of violence and death, and, in a large part because of the numerous interventions funded by the United States in Central America, immigrants continue to leave their homes in search of stability. Until we start working to prevent “pushes” from growing, the root causes of immigration will remain unaddressed.
In addition to touring the U.N. and the MCC seminar, we had some time to explore the city in the evenings. New York is a wild and large city, the heart of the American economy and home to innumerable iconic American landmarks. Our tourist explorings were in stark contrast to our daily discussions of improving the world: the same day I learned that many migrants cannot afford to pay 50 cents to cross a river on rafts made of trash, I spent $13.50 on a burrito. It tasted like guilt.
The world is a strange, painful, and disappointing place. In an era when partisanship and anger seem to tinge every interaction from interpersonal to international, it is good to know that there are dedicated people — from MCC staffers to U.N. ambassadors — working to make the world safer and more fair for everyone under the sun. May their mission be a successful one.