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Promises kept and unkept at the United Nations

By Merle Rubin / September 1, 1988



TWENTY or 25 years ago, a candidate who proposed - as Michael Dukakis has done - that he would try to make more use of an international forum like the United Nations for resolving international disputes and conducting foreign policy would not have raised many eyebrows. With the exception of a right-wing minority, voters would readily have accepted such a comment as a promising sign of an American president's willingness to take a truly global perspective. At this point in the campaign, Mr. Dukakis's remark has not become a serious liability, and it is too early to tell what direction his foreign policy statements may take. What struck me about his mention of the UN was the reaction it generated, reflecting a change in American attitudes over the last couple of decades.

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You don't have to be an old-fashioned isolationist to be disappointed in the record of that body, founded with such high hopes and noble principles in the aftermath of World War II. I remember how exciting it was, as a child growing up in those years, to be taken on a class trip to the UN headquarters in New York, where we were shepherded from one imposing, elegant, beautifully decorated chamber to the next. Fiberglass curtains from Sweden, crystal chandeliers from Austria, tapestries from India, sculpture from Africa. I don't remember the specific provenance of each gift, but the overall impression was unforgettable: a great, progressive, generous, quintessentially ``modern'' idea, the institutional embodiment of the dream of peace and world unity.

What, exactly, happened in the interim? Was it simply a case of too-high expectations bound to result in disappointment? In a deep sense, yes. Poised against the shadow of World War II, the emerging cold war, and the omnipresent mushroom cloud, the UN stood as a tangible symbol of hope. That it was unprecedented (back in our classrooms, we were assured that the UN had been carefully structured not to fail, as the old League of Nations had done) made it seem still more hopeful.

But the problem was not simply that the UN had not become the beneficent, democratic, supranational entity that one-world advocates dream of. In a world still torn by serious conflict - economic, political, religious, ethnic, and national - most people did not expect instant cooperation. The UN was to be a forum for airing differences and working out reasonable compromises in some cases.

Yet even this modest goal began to seem ever more distant. For many Americans - and others in the West - the problem became noticeable when we found that the General Assembly started voting against us. Was it merely a question of pique, then, at finding ourselves outnumbered in the General Assembly with only our Security Council veto to hold the line?

The problem, however, was not simply that the interests of the developed countries were at odds with those of the less developed countries. To take an issue on which the record of the US government has been quite dismal, it is horrifying to note that throughout the 1970s, little or nothing was done to stop genocide. Throughout the 1970s, the General Assembly spent much of its time and effort issuing diatribes against Israel and South Africa. But it did little or nothing about protecting human rights in Idi Amin's Uganda; or in Bangladesh, where 3 million were killed; or in Indonesia, where wholesale massacres were carried out in East Timor; or in the killing fields of Pol Pot's Cambodia.

Liberal critics of the organization's record (such as Leo Kuper, whose study of genocide analyzes the UN response to this crime) point out a central problem: The UN does not represent the individuals or even the people of the world, but rather, the sovereign territorial states of the world, each of which is largely committed to maintaining its own sovereignty.

In practice, this often means the sovereign ability of each state to do what it likes within its borders, including press censorship, repression of political opposition, imprisonment and torture of dissenters, and even massacres of ethnic, racial, religious, and class groups.

The UN functions democratically. But few of the states to which it accords representation are, in fact, democracies, no matter how many countries officially call themselves ``democratic republics.''

Nor does the problem switch off when the voting is over in the General Assembly. The UN is not just a forum for the world. It is a little world in itself. The people who work in its vast bureaucracies inhabit an Alice in Wonderland world of their own, where Zionism equals racism, where press coverage of a third-world problem is deemed more of a problem than the problem itself, and where the favored pejorative is still ``colonialist'' - as if the Union Jack still flew over outposts where the sun never set and Britannia still ruled the waves.

You'd think that meeting different people from all over the world would be broadening. But the bureaucracy generates its own world view, insulating those who work there from real experience and sending them the not-too-subtle signal that the UN world is the world.

In recent years, the US and other Western nations have shown their dissatisfaction by withholding financial support for the UN. Successive US administrations have appointed more outspoken representatives to shake things up. There have been changes in the body itself. Under the capable and enlightened leadership of Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, there have been administrative and fiscal reforms within the organization and a renewed sense of the UN's role as peacemaker on the world stage. The UN has begun to look a lot more viable once again - even to skeptics. We can certainly hope that it will live up to the promise it once represented. But it still has a long way to go.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance writer living in Pasadena, Calif.