The useful UN

The opening of the United Nations General Assembly today is not the kind of news that dominates the headlines. Many people in fact will greet this item with a ho-hum yawn. Already the assembly is expected to generate the usual amount of shrill political rhetoric as it takes up such sensitive issues as Israel's policy toward the Palestinian Arabs, the racial policies of South Africa, the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, and the question of who shall represent Cambodia in the UN. And once again many onlookers will be left with the impression of a squabbling, contentious collection of diplomats who are unable to come to grips with the deep problems on their agenda and who accomplish little beyond all the talk.

Let us use this occasion of the 35th annual meeting of the Assembly to put down the cynicism. The United Nations is not the ideal forum of international collaboration its early founders perhaps envisaged. But we feel its utility has been demonstrated beyond a doubt. One has only to consider where the world would be if the UN and its diverse institutions and functions ceased to exist.

Consider, for example, the immense work done by the UN's specialized agencies. The World Meteorological Organization has helped improve weather prediction, thereby benefiting agriculture, aviation, and shipping. The International Civil Aviation Organization has upgraded security at international airports and set engine-pollution, aircraft-noise, and other standards. Such activities have become an integral part of multilateral cooperation, accomplishing goals it would be difficult to achieve through bilateral means. Today they are so much a part of everyday life they are taken for granted.

The UN also serves as an instrument of economic development. It may be discouraging that the North-South dialogue launched 15 years ago between the world's rich and poor countries seems to be limping along these days. The recent UN session on the "development decade" did little more than agree on a broad strategy, without any firm commitments made, for instance, by the industrialized nations to increase foreign aid. That is regrettable. But if one looks at the overall progress made in 15 years it is appreciable. Significant changes have been made in the international economic system, such as establishment of a special oil facility within the International Monetary Fund -- all in response to a general recognition that the problems of the poor nations must be addressed on a multilateral basis. The UN today is the major nonnational source of development aid.

It is on the political side of things that the UN gets lambasted most. Here, too, a perspective is needed. It is asking the impossible to expect 154 nations of diverse backgrounds, cultures, races, and political systems to reach a consensus on world problems. Yet, acting as a safety valve for political tempers, the UN has manged to defuse many crises and contributed to the stability the world has known for the 35 years the organization has been in existence. It bears recalling that two UN peacekeeping forces are now stationed in the Middle East -- in Lebanon and on the Golan Heights -- and another in Cyprus, where the UN continues to try to work out a diplomatic settlement between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

Nor should it be forgotten that it is the resolutions passed by the UN Security Council which serve as the framework for the Camp David accords. Israel may be disenchanted with the UN and its strident denunciations of Israeli policy , but the UN still is certain to play an important role in any final settlement of the Mideast dispute. It is also the vehicle for trying to bring about independence of Namibia from South Africa. And, while the Waldheim mission to Iran failed to its purpose, the many steps taken by the Security Council, the General Assembly, and the World Court have undoubtedly had an effect on Iran's growing feeling of isolation in the international community. Other such examples of positve action could be cited.

Yes, the UN is guilty of verbal hyperbole and voting excesses. We will likely see some of this in the session starting today. But this is all part of the healthy process of international discourse. For all its flaws, the UN -- through its specialized agencies, its economic development, its peacemaking efforts -- does serve the cause of humanity's progress.

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