Presita el Usona Esperantisto № 2023:5–6 (sep-dec)

Esperanto at the UN in New York

Lasta ĝisdatigo: 2023-12-28

In December 1979 the Universal Esperanto Association opened an office in New York. Well, not an office exactly, but space sublet to UEA by the organization Save the Children, in a building consisting entirely of offices and meeting rooms for not-for-profit organizations doing business with the United Nations. The space provided a workplace for a group of people representing UEA at the UN—people like Julius and Elizabeth Manson, Margot Gerson, and Mark Starr.

Julius was a specialist in labor law and recently retired from Baruch College; Betty Manson’s sister Jane Jacobs was one of the most influential urban planners active at the time; Margot Gerson’s husband was an architect and Margot a person of many talents. The most notable figure in the group, and also the eldest, was Mark Starr, former education secretary of the ILGWU, a leading labor union, who completed his career in various posts and various missions, for the International Labor Organization and the U.S. Government. He spent time in Japan, involved in the reconstruction of that country following World War II, and he carried out assignments in East Africa for the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

Mark Starr was also a friend of Ralph Bunche, whose work in Africa and his pioneer work in the founding of the United Nations brought him the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1950.

The establishment of the UEA New York office arose in part from my own involvement in representing UEA at the United Nations. I had been elected president of the Universal Esperanto Association in 1974, and, living close by in Philadelphia, where I was a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, I was a quite frequent visitor to New York and to the United Nations. My time in office overlapped with that of Ralph Harry, Permanent Representative of Australia to the UN. Not only was Ralph Harry a fluent Esperantist, but as a young diplomat he had played a small but significant part in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights years before. He was rightfully proud of that achievement, which was one of many.

Ambassador Harry encouraged UEA to increase its activities in New York and helped open doors at the UN and elsewhere for the representatives of the Association.

Thanks to the broad and generous support particularly of U.S. Esperantists, there was enough money to hire a part-time director for the office. Among those occupying the position were Leonard Dzelzitis, an immigrant to the U.S. from Latvia, and Trefflé Mercier, of Canada. Trefflé Mercier remains an active Esperantist today.

The UEA office has remained ever since in the same office building, 777 United Nations Plaza. As rents went up and money grew tight, and as UEA shifted its priorities to embrace a wider range of external relations, the office was moved to more modest quarters in the basement of the building. Among more recent directors have been retired UN staffer the late Rochelle Grossman, and active New York Esperantist Neil Blonstein.

In the days of Julius Manson and Margot Gerson, the UN was a very different place. The public was more or less free to move around the building. There was a lounge for representatives of NGOs and weekly briefing sessions to keep them up to date. UN meetings were often open to NGO representatives without prior registration, and much business was conducted in private offices and informal conversations or phone calls. With the advent of computers and e-mail, the arrival of the internet, the emergence of social media, and the aftermath of the disruptions caused by the pandemic, much more of the UN’s business is conducted by other means than regular in-person meetings. Casual contacts are less and less common, and one can conduct as much business remotely as one can conduct on site.

The UN itself has become more complex and more far-flung. A third major center, in addition to New York and Geneva, was opened in Vienna in 1980 and, more recently, a fourth center was established in Nairobi. UEA works in various ways in all four centers, and of course has been active in Paris, at UNESCO, for over seventy years.

While the office in New York is no longer as central as it once was, it remains a convenient place for keeping records and for occasional informal meetings—and it shows that UEA is more than just a calling card. Above all, it gives UEA easy access to meeting rooms in the building accessible to the various tenants, and a prestigious address. Among the NGO offices in the building is that of the Conference of NGOs in Consultative States with the UN (CoNGO), on whose board UEA serves. UEA chairs one of CoNGO’s specialized committees, the Committee on Language and Languages, indeed was instrumental in founding it a few years ago. The committee is chaired by one of UEA’s representatives to the UN, Professor Francis M. Hult, of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Over the years, the annual Symposium on Language and the UN has frequently met in the buulding. This symposium (to be held virtually in 2024) has taken place most years since 1983, when the then head of UN conference services, Françoise Cestac, and I set it up as a joint venture between her office and UEA.

These conferences have attracted numerous important participants over the years, from future UN Secretary General Koffi Annan to noted financier George Soros. They continue to draw important players in the field of language and linguistics—in no small part due to our established presence at the UN.

The work at the UN continues. Our main goal, of course, is to represent Esperanto and the solutions it provides to the present multilingualism, not to say linguistic disorder, of the UN. But it also provides a channel in the opposite direction—as a means of generating among Esperanto speakers an interest in the work of the UN today as it grapples with climate change, sustainable development, and the amelioration of poverty and ministering to the victims of warfare and of natural disasters. If we want recognition for Esperanto, we must be willing to work with the priorities of the UN and our fellow NGOs.

I like to feel that, if Zamenhof were alive today, he would approve of the work that we are doing. He understood that speakers of Esperanto must engage with the world, must address the world’s problems even as they suggest solutions.

In short, we must meet, in Zamenhof’s words, as “people with people,” not as inhabitants of individual countries, espousers of particular ideas—because it is as people, understanding one another, that we will overcome the barriers that confront us. Our little office in New York symbolizes that bridging of communities, that search for a common humanity, beyond nation states and even beyond the language that Zamenhof invented to assist us.

We are grateful for the help that we receive from US Esperantists and from speakers of the language across the world. With our website, our Facebook group, our newsletter, and our band of activists, we do our best to represent Esperanto to the world, thanks to the support of the Esperantists.