The UN's Search for Solvency

Secretary-General is trying to cut costs while pleading with members to pay bills

IN less than two weeks, the world's top leaders will gather here to launch the 48th annual session of the United Nations General Assembly. Their speeches, now an eagerly awaited fall ritual, will include lofty calls on the UN to do a better and more effective job of preserving world peace.

Politically, most national leaders find it far easier to tell the UN how to improve than to come up with the money to fund day-to-day UN operations.

UN expenses now run about $3.7 billion a year. So far in 1993, only 12 of the UN's 184 member nations have paid their full share of the regular budget and peacekeeping costs: Australia, Canada, Finland, Ghana, Ireland, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Micronesia, Namibia, New Zealand, Sweden, and Britain. Financial crisis

The UN is owed $1.9 billion in past and current debt. In a recent speech to a General Assembly finance committee, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said the UN faces an ``unprecedented '' and ``intolerable'' financial crisis. Last month he sent written pleas to all UN member states. He has telephoned a number of world leaders to prod them further for money and troops.

On Sept. 13, Joseph Reed, a special representative of the secretary-general, renewed the request to pay up in an appearance before representatives of world parliaments meeting in Canberra.

Peacekeeping bills account for a full $1.1 billion of the total owed the UN. All members are assessed separately for these costs. Some nations such as France have only recently been reimbursed by the UN for troop contributions made a decade ago. The delays make the already difficult job of recruiting fresh troops even tougher. Lack of funds also has slowed the start of a number of peacekeeping ventures, such as one in Mozambique.

The secretary-general has said that he cannot refuse any request for UN help in disputes, and that he must ``fight'' to get the money. Otherwise, in his view, the UN is open to charges of discrimination.

Yet these are tough economic times for all nations. Most governments are under strong pressure to put domestic needs first.

The United States, which for the last decade has paid its UN budget bill in October rather than in January when it is due, is the UN's leading deadbeat. Washington owes $786 million in both annual dues and peacekeeping assessments. Russia, which owes $505 million, is second. Japan, with $108 million overdue, is in third place.

During the last three years, the US had begun to pay back dues withheld in the mid-80s to force UN reforms. Though Washington now is expected to pay its 1993 UN budget dues in full, any further payment of back dues and peacekeeping charges is still very much in question.

``The US has clearly fallen behind in the schedule of making arrearage payments and in keeping up with the dramatic growth in peacekeeping operations,'' says John Tessitore, spokesman for the UN Association of the USA. Peacekeeping issue

``The real issue now is the peacekeeping money,'' says John Bolton, former US assistant secretary of state for international organizations and now a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in Washington. ``It's a question of political will. If that's there, you're going to find the money. ... It boils down to what the US role is going to be, because I think we lead on peacekeeping. If we don't, nobody else will.''

To assure member nations that the UN is spending their money wisely, Mr. Boutros-Ghali recently announced a new series of cost-cutting moves. He put sharp limits on the total number of weekly Assembly and Security Council meetings and confined them, except for emergencies, to weekdays with a 6 p.m. closing hour. This will save on overtime and other operation costs for the Council, which until now has met into the early evening. The secretary-general, who abolished 14 high-level UN posts during the first year of his term, also trimmed back the number of temporary workers hired to help with the fall Assembly session.

In deference to nations eager to see closer monitoring of UN financial operations, Boutros-Ghali tapped Mohamed Aly Niazi, a fellow-Egyptian who once headed the UN's internal audit division, for the new post of assistant secretary-general for inspections and investigations. The position is billed by UN officials as a first step toward creating a high-level post with broad audit and investigatory powers.

The US in particular has championed the idea of a UN inspector-general, a slot the General Assembly is expected to discuss this year. US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright says the Security Council, which she served as president during the month of August, welcomes the secretary-general's recent reform efforts. ``The UN needs to get its whole house in order,'' she says. New investigator

Still, the selection of a veteran UN insider such as Mr. Niazi for the new investigations post has met with some criticism. For some, it raises the question of just how serious Boutros-Ghali is about reform. In a somewhat testy session with reporters recently, Niazi said that some waste in a large organization such as the UN is inevitable and no sure indicator that ``something went wrong.'' He said that so much has been written lately about corruption and waste at the UN that newspaper readers might be tempted to conclude that ``the whole UN is a cesspool.'' Niazi, who has won praise from the secretary-general for the ``positive results'' he has brought in on past probes, insists he has independence in his new job, which began Sept. 1, and may investigate any area he chooses.

Any outsider who came in cold on such a job would require months to learn how the UN operates and might cause more problems than he or she resolves, argues Melissa Wells, an American who is the UN's undersecretary-general for administration and management.

``There is no doubt in my mind that the secretary-general is deeply, deeply committed to reform, and I mean in terms of management, abuse, waste, and fraud,'' Ms. Wells says.

Though few if any UN member nations now are withholding funds from the UN as leverage to get more reform, a more trim and accountable UN could help to speed payments.

Getting a more streamlined institution has even become part of the agenda for the UN's 50th birthday celebration in 1995. Richard Butler, Australia's ambassador to the UN, is chairman of the anniversary committee. ``Such an auspicious occasion demands something more than just a party,'' says Tony Miller, spokesman for the Australian UN mission. ``The anniversary will be used as a target for achieving reform.''

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