Saturday, November 15, 2008

Good Bye, Bathroom View

I turn off the lights and walk over to the elevators. Just one last time. It's late, I'm among the few still left in the office on this Friday evening, but there's time for one last time.

I press down the handle, open the door. Enter. The lights are on, it's empty, it's quiet. I walk up to the my reflection in the window and see myself superimposed on the New York City skyline. Smiling at myself, I stretch my neck and look down on the streets. All the lights. All the cars.

The view from the ladies' restroom. The perfect metaphor for this journey I took as a step to get a clearer sense of the world--a better view, as it were. Spending two months on the 37th floor of the UN Secretariat building gives you a whole new perspective. Or rather, walking down the corridors of the world's only universal forum for discussion, deliberation, argumentation and a somewhat democratic solution to the problems we face--attending conferences and briefings--gives you a new perspective.

Like today. When I grabbed a sandwich outside the conference room on the 12th floor of 777 UN Plaza (where International Peace Institute had hosted a two-day conference on the implementation of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in South Asia--very interesting stuff) and ran to the elevator, hurried over the street, through the security check, and over to Conference Room 9 to listen to a person with a very particular view of the world.

An ambassador for the state of Israel.

Oh, how I wish I could say that he gave a balanced, grounded impression and came with sensible, to-the-point observations. But with the gravest of faces suggesting that Israel is the weaker part and the victim; that the UN is biased and run by a Palestinian lobby and that the UN has lost all connection to the real world for this reason, is (and forgive me for being insensitive) nothing short of dimwitted and ignorant. Yes, the General Assembly does pass resolution after resolution condemning Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands; Israeli denial of the inalienable rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories; the illegal wall built on Palestinian land; the unlawful transferal of Israeli population into the occupied territories and the establishment of illegal settlements; the excessive use of force and the use of collective punishment against the Palestinian population. This is true. (But the Assembly also condemns Palestinian militants and Palestinian terrorist acts, mind you). And yes, there is a General Assembly Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People with a Division for Palestinian Rights in the UN Secretariat. But I daresay that none of this would be needed at all if Israel complied to international law and ended their occupation, or at least lived up to the Fourth Geneva Convention concerning the protection of victims of armed international conflict, and civilians under occupation.

But I don't mean to write the ambassador off completely. He was indeed right on one point, and that is that neither the General Assembly resolutions, nor the Security Council resolutions that have been adopted in spite of the USA to this day--after all these years--have not changed anything on the ground. But to claim that they are therefore unimportant, or even lack legitimacy, is to miss the point completely: the resolutions have not achieved change on the ground (or in "the real world" as the ambassador calls it) for two reasons:

1. Israel chooses to continue violating them and putting itself above international law.

2. This is allowed by the international community without sanctions being imposed on Israel, because a permanent member with veto power (well, who do you think?) in the Security Council (the only UN body that can adopt binding resolutions and impose sanctions) blocks any attempt to hold Israel accountible for their actions.

Even if the Assembly would be biased against Israel, and the Secretariat too (which I still would argue with fervor against, since they are simply defending international law and human rights), the only UN body that counts when it comes to real power (that is to say, the Security Council) is under the command of Israel's unswerving ally and adamant protector, the USA. Talk about biased.

But these allegations against the UN can be tolerated, after all. It is just an organization. But when the ambassador goes on to not only claim that it is completely acceptable to deny UN relief services entry into Gaza and cut off food medicine, and energy supplies to about 1.5 million innocent civilian Gazans (which is being done as I write this) as a response to the firing of rockets by militants into Israel, my heart is pounding and my body tingling with indignation. Because, you see, the Gazans brought this upon themselves--Israel left them to govern themselves, and look what happens! (That Israel in practice still occupies the Gaza Strip by controlling the borders, denying Gazans even the slightest freedom of movement, completely cutting off all their relations with the outer world; and, together with the help of the US and the EU that contribute by withholding foreign aid to Gaza since Hamas took over, has created a humanitarian crisis that is among the worst imaginable, is besides the point).

My heart is pounding still as I write this.

But the room was full of interns who, like myself, shook their heads and smiled in disbelief. And we could voice our different opinions regarding these matters and counter the ambassador's world view with our world views. And this is what I mean when I say that spending time at the UN gives you a whole new perspective. The whole world is tucked into one little area where everybody's world view interacts, interbreeds, confronts each other, changes and adapts. Mine, too, has changed and I see some things differently, others more clearly.

I look at my face in the window one last time, turn around and walk out of the bathroom and take the elevator downstairs. For the last time. My internship is over and I said my goodbyes. My supervisor and her boss thanked me for all my work and said (if you'd allow me to toot my own horn just a little) that I am one of the best interns they have had.

I'm glad.

New York is dark, yet filled with city lights; humid, mild and noisy. Cars honk. I walk down 42nd Street all the way to Times Square and for the first time, I feel a sense of love for the city. Not just admiration for its fame or for its prestige, but love for its spirit. Maybe because I'm leaving soon.

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