Getting the World's Ear

Review of UN efforts and reform proposals fill leaders' speeches at 49th General Assembly

IT'S fall gridlock time at the United Nations. New York's men and women in blue block off streets and unscramble traffic tie-ups. Inside, officials from the 184-member nations take turns at the marble podium reviewing UN successes and failures. The speeches go on until mid-October in this launch of the 49th General Assembly.

Though UN troops are bogged down in conflicts from Somalia to Bosnia, the timing of this year's debate - on the eve of the UN's 50th anniversary in 1995 - adds an air of expectancy to the Assembly session. Any celebration, speakers say, must include reform and renewal.

Most speakers offer reform suggestions. Russian President Boris Yeltsin proposed the five nuclear powers sign a new treaty to reduce the number of atomic weapons. US President Clinton suggested an agreement to reduce the number and spread of land mines.

Though the world focuses most intently on the UN's peacekeeping role, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali says in his annual report and recent speeches that the primary mission in the next half-century should be economic and social development. Lack of such progress, he says, is a leading cause of war.

His proposed shift of focus strikes a sympathetic chord. Amara Essy, foreign minister of Cote d'Ivoire and the new Assemby president, says many African nations are liberalizing their economies and moving toward political pluralism, but that all of Africa's current problems have economic roots.

Yet when the bloodshed of war appears on world TV screens, pressure on the UN to do something remains strong. The world body currently operates 16 peacekeeping missions at a cost of $3.3 billion a year. It has faced such trouble recently recruiting troop and equipment offers that top peacekeeping officials held a special press briefing a few days ago to explain why it takes so long to get UN troops in place. ``Political will is the key factor - when it's there, there's a way,'' says UN Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Kafi Annan.

That often missing ingredient and the UN's well-publicized lack of muscle has led to a new variety of freelance operations under UN auspices. Russian troops in Georgia, French troops in Rwanda (now departed), and US troops in Haiti are cases in which the Council gave its blessing.

The point is a sensitive one for many UN members. In his speech, Mexico's President Carlos Salinas de Gortari said using force is not valid when world peace is not in danger. Similarly, Celso Luiz Nunes Amorim, foreign minister of Brazil, said new interpretations of the principle of nonintervention contradict the UN charter. The result he said, ``evokes traumas and scars, which are still very vivid in the memory of Latin America.''

In his Sept. 26 speech to the Assembly, US President Clinton insisted that the US has no desire to be ``the world's policeman,'' but that, when US national-security interests are threatened, the US will act alone and use force if it must. He cited the global response to the Rwanda crisis as a remarkable example of the world community joining in a common cause. ``The problem,'' he said, ``is deciding when we must respond and how we shall overcome our reluctance.''

Much of the optimism voiced in the Assemby hall these days is focused more on hope for UN peace efforts than on solid accomplishment. Progress in the Middle East and Northern Ireland and the evolution to a democratic South Africa are the most commonly cited foreign policy successes. Yet only the governmental change in South Africa, a nation long under UN economic sanctions, has any significant link to the UN.

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