UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — A LARGER-than-ever United Nations General Assembly began its new fall session Sept. 15. Some 20 of its 179 members have come aboard just in the last year, and the Assembly's agenda is similarly hefty. At 146 items and growing, the list ranges from human rights in Haiti to prevention of an arms race in outer space.
Yet influence rather than numbers is increasingly the issue.
Since the 15-member Security Council moved into a near-consensus mode at the end of the cold war, most of the visible UN action happens there. Increasingly, in dealing with crises from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Somalia, the Council has edged more and more into the humanitarian and human rights arena.
Some diplomats see the Council's spread as a move on Assembly territory as well as a threat to some nations' sovereignty.
Yet the Assembly, with its universal membership, holds the purse strings and serves as the UN's prime discussion forum. The traditional three weeks of speeches by heads of state or ambassadors begins Sept. 21 with the United States.
Samir Shihabi of Saudi Arabia, who was replaced as Assembly president this week by Stoyan Ganev of Bulgaria, calls the Assembly the "core" of the UN, "the parliament of the world."
In bidding farewell to delegates Sept. 14, he warned members "to strongly guard" the Assembly's role as spelled out in the UN Charter. Any attempt at change could weaken the whole international system and marginalize the UN, he said. He is trying to gather former presidents into a council as a support group for the Assembly and favors a two-year term for its presidents.
Just last month the Assembly, which set a record last year by meeting at least once every month except in June and January, thrashed over the Bosnia crisis. The Assembly voted 136 to 1 (Yugoslavia was the lone dissenter) to urge the Security Council to consider using military force under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter to end the fighting.
The Council, meanwhile, continues its own debate. The Council voted Sept. 14 to add more than 5,000 peacekeeping troops to its contingent in Bosnia and is weighing a ban on military flights over Bosnia. Still, the Assembly's view and its effort to prod the Council to do more are seen as key indicators of world public opinion.
UN reforms proposed by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali earlier this summer are sure to be vigorously debated in the Assembly or its committees this fall. He has suggested everything from deeper UN involvement in preventative diplomacy to development of a standby force to counter aggression.
New tasks such as deciding on the powers and makeup of the Commission on Sustainable Development, established to enforce accords reached at the UN environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro last June, will also be on the Assembly agenda.
UN Under-Secretary-General Vladimir Petrovsky, while stressing the Assembly's importance as a political forum, concedes that it probably would work more effectively if the agenda were cut in half. "The time has come," he says. Still, he notes that the world body continues to be handed new roles - in arms control and disarmament, for instance.
One of the Assembly's prime chores, he says, will be to help develop a better attitude among members about paying UN bills. UN peacekeeping operations this year will cost about $3 billion, he says, compared to $233 million five years ago. The UN is owed about $1.8 billion in unpaid budget dues and peacekeeping assessments, he says. The US alone owes $1.1 billion.
Noting the pull on the UN for more peacekeeping operations, Mr. Petrovsky says, "There is a danger that the UN could become a victim of its own popularity."