Humorous Touch Breathes Life Into UN Portrait

The U.N. For Beginners

By Ian Williams

Writers and Readers Publishing Inc.,

152 pages, $11

DO your eyes glaze over at the mere mention of the United Nations?

If you feel a yawn coming on but think you really should know something about how the world body works and what it has or has not achieved in its first half-century, this crisp account is likely to keep you both awake and entertained.

Cartoons and photos run through the prose on every page. The tongue-in-cheek humor keeps the reader constantly on guard. (Examples: "As the cold war froze on, the UN settled into one of its most useful roles - the official scapegoat of the world;" or, "If you have a Secretary-General visiting your home, the way to his heart is to give him a 21-gun salute as if he were a head of state....") The book is one in a comic documentary series for adults that aims to rescue from intellectualism such subjects as Plato, Nietszche, Islam, and now the UN.

"I wanted to put an 'F' in front of the UN - for FUN - the organization is much too important to be boring," says author Ian Williams. Currently president of the UN Correspondents Association, he has reported on the UN for The New York Observer, The Nation, New Statesman, and other publications since 1989. He says his approach to the book is "pointillist," aimed at building an overview through selective detail.

The author has little patience with UN bureaucracy, including what he calls "UNspeak," the strange multisyllabled language that creeps into most UN documents and resolutions. His best news stories, he insists, have come from employees loyal to UN ideals who have leaked data on the theory that only outside prodding can bring needed reform.

The first section of the book, which may prove the most interesting to many readers, deals with the role and powers of the UN's six main organs. We learn that the General Assembly, which controls the UN purse strings and works on treaties, does largely "unspectacular but useful" work. The Security Council, the focus of most UN action since the end of the cold war, specializes more, in the view of many diplomats, in "spectacular but useless" work. ECOSOC (the UN Economic and Social Council) is not "some ecologically sound footware," notes Williams, but the "Cinderella" of the UN that deals with development, business, feeding, and culture.

It takes about $10 billion a year, an amount equal to one-third of New York City's budget, to operate the UN and its peacekeeping missions. Since some nations, including the US, do not pay their dues on time or in full, the UN, legally barred from borrowing, is forced to juggle accounts. All this, the author notes, makes advance planning at the UN difficult and debtor nations even more reluctant to pay up.

No neutral observer, Williams holds strong opinions. He sees UN actions in terms of a wide gap between the ideal and the actual. For him, UN failings loom larger than successes.

He credits the UN with playing a major role in everything from improving the international communications system to setting global human-rights standards. He says the UN played an "honorable" role in South Africa's apartheid controversy by depriving Pretoria of its UN vote in 1974 and later imposing a mandatory arms embargo on South Africa. Yet in Williams's view, much of what the UN has said and done is hypocritical.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for instance, he says the Security Council has passed too many conflicting mandates for UN peacekeepers, who have failed to distinguish adequately between victim and aggressor.

Unchecked arms sales by the UN's most powerful members, the author contends, have contributed significantly to UN difficulties in such conflicts as that in Somalia. Williams also chides the major powers for trying to influence the secretary-general's top staff choices in what he calls a direct violation of the UN Charter.

The author keeps a short list of UN "heroes." Former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold gets high marks for having stood up to Soviet pressure (including Nikita Khruschev's shoe-banging episode) to resign after the Congo crisis of the 1960s. U Thant of Burma, the UN's first chief executive from the developing world, also nets kudos as a man of vision and independence who recognized early on the danger in the growing gap between rich and poor nations.

Also high on Williams's list is Ralph Bunche, the black American intellectual and former UN undersecretary-general who wrote the key colonial and trusteeship sections of the UN Charter and won the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with Arabs and Israelis. The author concludes that the UN is more good than bad, but that it could be better, and that more grass- roots interest would help. He urges readers to watch over how their national delegations vote and behave. "It's your United Nations," he insists. "Rescue it from the gray people in the gray suits!"

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