The Evolving United Nations

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THE headline is placed atop this column with some trepidation: The United Nations generally does not make people's hearts pound.

But a colloquium at Harvard University the other day provided the occasion for reflection on the UN and its achievements, which include survival, and its structure and usefulness, which are receiving new scrutiny as the organization moves toward its 50th anniversary, to come in July 1995.

For all its rhetoric, for all its diffusiveness, the UN bears watching as an example of an organization that starts with a grand charter but little actual power and then over time, by working at the margins, is able to increase its efficacy - somewhat.

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Its current period of activism goes back to Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar's brokering of the 1988 cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war. No one would argue that the UN would have had the same success in bringing to heel antagonists more powerful than these two, but the peacemaking in the Gulf was followed by other such deals elsewhere. It is by no means a perfect record; in places (Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, to name two) it has been gravely disappointing. But the blue berets, and the blue helmets, are out there around the world.

At the Harvard colloquium, cosponsored by the Irish Times, Mary Robinson, the constitutional and human rights lawyer who has been president of Ireland since December 1990, spoke on the preamble to the UN Charter, which begins, ``We the peoples of the United Nations.'' She outlined ways in which the UN can help further human rights and third-world development.

It was a good fit of speaker and subject: The presidency of the Irish Republic has been a ceremonial office with few constitutional responsibilities other than to avoid comment on matters of government policy (which are for the politicians to handle). But President Robinson has been working at the margins, finding ways to increase the efficacy of her office.

The other speaker was Richard Butler, ambassador and permanent representative of Australia to the UN and also chairman of the UN's 50th anniversary committee. This was another good fit of speaker to subject: Like the Irish and the Canadians, the Australians seem to find a natural place in forums like the UN; they are heirs to the Anglophone tradition of human rights and civil liberties but sans imperial baggage.

And it is as a vehicle for the furthering of a universal standard of human rights, not as a ``world government,'' that the UN matters. It is not, however, a collection of peoples, but of governments, all sensitive to their own sovereignty. The UN's delicate balance of idealism and Realpolitik has limited its peacemaking effectiveness while also ensuring its survival.

As the UN finishes its first half-century, one of the questions is whether the Security Council should be restructured somehow, notably by including Germany and Japan as permanent members - however fraught with political difficulties (including within the two countries) that may be. It may be better to ask, as one UN observer suggests, what kind of things do we want the Security Council to do? And what kinds of countries do we want to include? Answer those questions, this observer suggests, and the particulars of which nation plays what role should take care of themselves.

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