United Nations, N.Y. — Can the United Nations afford the price of peace? This is the question officials of this nearly bankrupt organization face as they prepare to handle a wave of truce-monitoring demands.
The price tag for the most recent move - the stationing of observer forces along the Iran-Iraq border - is $37.5 million for three months. Observer forces for Afghanistan weigh in at $7 million for the coming year.
And possible future involvement in southwest Africa, the Western Sahara, and Cambodia, UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar said recently, could bring the grand total up to $1.5 billion to $2 billion this year - ``more than twice ... the regular annual United Nations budget.''
The UN's casualty cost is correspondingly high. Since the first UN peacekeeping operation was mounted in the mid-1940s, about 700 ``blue beret'' soldiers have lost their lives.
Despite reservations, the General Assembly acted swiftly last week on the Secretary-General's appeal to authorize funding for the Gulf force. A team of 350 officers of the UN Iran-Iraq Military Observer force arrived in the region Aug. 20 to monitor the cease-fire. (Jubilation in Baghdad, Page 10.) [Reuters reported Sunday that the UN officers were investigating Iraqi charges of an Iranian sniper killing an Iraqi soldier hours after Saturday's cease-fire came into force.]
Even so, Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar got only half the funds he had requested. In approving the peacekeeping force, the Security Council agreed to authorize it for an initial six months. For that period, he had made a request for $75.6 million.
But by the time the General Assembly voted, the duration had been cut to three months and the funding reduced to $37.5 million.
In part, the reduction in time and money reflected the UN's budgetary crisis. But it also may have been a triumph of hope over experience.
In 1964, the first year of the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus, the Security Council provided for durations of three months or less.
But with no end in sight to the Greek Cypriot-Turkish Cypriot conflict, by mid-1965 it fell into a cycle of renewing its mandate every six months - a practice that persists.
Similarly, members of the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) have patrolled the western buttress of the Himalaya mountains for nearly 40 years.
To date, the UN has fielded 15 peace operations.
Over 10,000 military personnel from more than 25 of the UN's 159 member states serve in seven observer or peacekeeping missions.
The most financially costly has been the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
This force was established a decade ago as a temporary presence of about 6,000 peacekeepers to monitor the withdrawal of Israeli troops that had invaded southern Lebanon and to help restore Beirut's authority over the area.
The Israelis, however, still remain - in a self-declared ``security zone'' -and so does UNIFIL. The cost since its inception: more than $1.5 billion.
By the latest accounting, member states' regular budget arrears total about $690 million.
Of that amount the United States owes about $467 million.
In addition, the US is $65 million behind on peacekeeping assessments. So far, Washington has given no indication that it is ready to pay either debt.
By contrast, the Soviet Union, which owed more than $172 million in peacekeeping arrears, has begun paying up and has said it intends to wipe out the debt within four or five years.
Under these circumstances, UN members are ambivalent about P'erez de Cu'ellar's prediction that stubborn regional conflicts appear to be heading toward solution and may require further outlays in personnel and money.
Specifically, he cited:
Namibia, where the UN is committed to guiding the territory toward independence from South Africa at an estimated cost of ``at least $700 million.''
The Western Sahara, where the UN is expected to deploy several thousand peacekeepers and observers to monitor a cease-fire between Moroccan and Polisario rebel troops and to oversee a self-determination referendum.
Cambodia, where ``extensive'' activities, perhaps including verification of a Vietnamese troop withdrawal and election supervision, will become a postwar UN responsibility.
P'erez de Cu'ellar says it is ironic that just when ``the pursuit of peace quickens its pace throughout the UN, bankruptcy threatens the organization.''
``Peace has its price,'' the UN Secretary-General says. But ``war's devastation dwarfs the costs of peace. And in a moral sense, there is no price to place on a single human life,'' he concludes.
WHERE THE UN KEEPS PEACE (UNTSO): UN Truce Supervision Organization Operates in Israel and four Arab states; reports on hostilities. Cost: $20.3 million (1988) Troops: 298 (UNDOF): UN Disengagement Observer Force supervises cease-fire between Israel and Syria. Cost: $34.7 million (1988) Troops: 1,327 (UNIFIL): UN Interim Force in Lebanon patrols buffer zone in south Lebanon, to prevent fighting between Israeli and Lebanese forces. Cost: $139.4 million (1988) Troops: 5,850 (UNFICYP): UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus patrols buffer zone to prevent Greek-Turkish Cypriot clashess. Cost: $25.2 million (1988) Troops: 2,122 (UNMOGIP): UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan supervises cease-fire. Cost: $3.7 million (1988) Troops: 39 (UNIIMOG): UN Iran-Iraq Military Observer Group aims to establish cease-fire line, arrange troop pullback to international borders, monitor cease-fire compliance. Cost: $37.5 million (for first 3 months) Troops: 350 observers; 400 support military (UNGOMAP): UN Good Offices Mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan monitors Geneva pullout accords. Cost: $7 million (1988) Observers: 50