Broad Mission, Small Budget Strain UN Effort

UN chief juggles sanctions, mediation, and peacekeeping from Somalia to Cyprus

UNITED Nations diplomats have been as frustrated as anyone by Iraq's defiance of UN cease-fire terms and the 17-day standoff over inspection of the Agriculture Ministry building for weapons and records. UN credibility has been firmly on the line.

Yet Iraq's defiance is only one of several hot issues on an increasingly crowded UN Security Council agenda these days.

The 15-member Council and UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali are also juggling a mix of sanctions, declarations, mediation and the use of peacekeeping forces to deal with conflicts from Somalia and the former republics of Yugoslavia to Cambodia, South Africa, and Cyprus.

Veteran UN watchers say the rapidly growing Council list is stretching the UN and its resources to the limit.

"Everyone wants the UN to be the local miracle worker," says Edward Luck, president of the United Nations Association of the USA. "Member states come with more and more tasks. It's partly the price of success. Yet the UN is in an awkward transition period. It's still trying to recover from all the body blows it suffered politically and financially during the 1980s and hasn't yet built up its military and financial strength."

Samuel Lewis, president of the US Institute for Peace, cites "an overload in the UN system right now. It's not strong enough to take on much more."

The immensity of the challenge was underscored by the secretary-general in a letter and report to the Council last week on the newest cease-fire arrangement in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Part of the agreement, first negotiated by the European Community and later accepted by the Security Council, called for UN supervision of heavy weapons from all warring factions.

The secretary-general, who has been meeting almost daily with top Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders to try to resolve the conflict over Cyprus, said he was distressed both because he had not been consulted on the Council's decision on Bosnia-Herzegovina and because the decision was impractical.

Assigning limited UN resources and manpower to the task, he says, raises a question of equity at a time when other serious conflicts, such as the civil war raging in Somalia, have drawn much less international attention and resources.

In a report to the Council issued late in the week, Mr. Boutros-Ghali urged a sharply expanded UN presence in all regions of Somalia to help warring parties to stop fighting and settle their differences.

Despite its primary responsibility under the UN Charter for maintaining international peace and security, the Security Council must choose its involvements more carefully and prioritize, analysts say.

Many of the conflicts in which the UN is currently embroiled are civil wars, which tend to be more fierce and long-lasting than wars between countries.

"It's easy to call on the UN to be the quick fix, but it can be stuck holding the bag for a long, long time in some of these situations," Mr. Luck says.

"We're getting into a new world here of long-festering internal conflicts ... that require long-range commitments of oversight, enforcement, and peacekeeping by the UN," says David Scheffer, an international lawyer at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The question is, `Does the Security Council have enough staff and capability?' "

One short-term answer may be to strengthen regional organizations and take them more seriously as a "court of first resort" for civil conflicts in their neighborhoods, says Innis Claude, professor emeritus of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. At present, such groups often speedily "export" their problems to the UN, he says.

The Security Council could also delegate some of its work to such underutilized UN agencies as the Trusteeship Council, Mr. Scheffer suggests. The latter council, which includes all five permanent Security Council members and was founded to help bring colonial territories to independence, he says, and could easily be made a kind of "clearinghouse" for self-determination movements. It might provide mediation services and a place "to blow off steam."

The Council could also make more effective use of other parts of the UN in ways that could help it build a broader membership consensus for its actions, Scheffer says.

The UN's limited personnel and finances are already at a crisis point, some experts say, with $911 million in regular dues still owed the UN. The US owes more than half of the total. The UN has a dozen costly peacekeeping operations around the globe, yet its New York headquarters staff includes only 15 professionals.

Mr. Luck, who suggests that the Pentagon probably has more than 15 people just to oversee the Marine Corps band, says the UN must be given the resources to match the burden it carries. He argues that all members should pay their assessments early in the year when they are due. Reserve funds should be set up for peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, he says, to fund the first three-to-six months of an operation.

"In many ways the staff of the UN is a kind of mom-and-pop operation trying to deal with supermarket problems," says Professor Claude. "There's going to have to be some strengthening of staff. The world has been very eager to use the UN in the last year or two, but has showed very little eagerness to pay for it."

Questions about the Security Council's political and economic legitimacy are part of the problem. The Security Council's membership, for example, is more reflective of the world power picture in 1945 than in 1992. Yet opening the Council to broader membership could usher in pressures to make it as large as the General Assembly.

"If the Security Council is to be effective, it needs to be kept small," Claude says.

In the end, these analysts say, the UN's clout depends both on what members want the world body to do and on how much political and economic support they are ready to give it.

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