An honest attempt at balance; ABC Closeup's portrait of the UN: charges and praise

In the last two years, the Human Rights Division of the United Nations has spent $10.5 million, and according to ABC News Closeup: Swords, Plowshares, and Politics (ABC, Friday, 10-11 p.m.), only about 5 percent of that sum was actually spent investigating human rights violations in the field. The rest went to travel, salaries, printing, and meetings.

That striking allegation is made in the context of what seems to be an honest attempt by ABC News Closeup to come up with a balanced portrait of the UN, yesterday and today.

While the show charges that the Human Rights Division seems to spend an inordinate amount of its budget on administration, etc., the documentary -- produced and directed by Stephen Fleischman, with Marshall Frady and William Sherman reporting -- does not hesitate to praise where praise is obviously due, as in the case of the UN Refugee Commission, which manages to spend 90 percent of its half-billion-dollar budget actually caring for refugees.

The Human Rights Division figures were so disturbing that I checked with Jay Long, deputy to UN Undersecretary William Buffum, who is responsible for overseeing the Human Rights Program. According to Mr. Long, the Human Rights Division performs a three-part function -- the promotion of human rights (publications, seminars, etc.), the development of international instruments for human rights (covenants, conventions, etc.), and investigation and examination of human rights violations. Thus the charge that only 5 percent of the budget is spent for in-the-field investigations can be misleading.

Even considering all of these explanations, however, the fact that so little of the UN human rights budget is spent in directly battling for human rights is a fact which, in the light of the rest of this enlightening documentary, comes over on the program as symbolic of the weaknesses of the United Nations as it is now constituted.

Mr. Frady, who manages to give the Closeup series a reassuring and rational image in his role as host-narrator, traces the formation of the United Nations, through its great expansion with the advent of the third-world nations, to its current status. What becomes clear (and is repeated in the program several times) is that, as Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar says on camera, ''Many members . . . have signed the Charter and they have forgotten the Charter.'' Mr. Frady points out that the United Nations Charter ''was created to protect, in peace, those freedoms the Allies had saved by war. . . .''

''Swords, Plowshares, and Politics'' is far from a paean to the United Nations. It points its finger accusingly in many instances, saying that the United States bears 25 percent of the UN budget and has now become part of a Western minority; that many nations use the UN as an espionage center; that often the bureaucracy overwhelms humanitarian efforts; that many members do not understand the democratic principles of the Charter. But despite all this, it establishes that the UN performs an important function: It is still one of the few international forums where differences are discussed with words, although weapons are being used simultaneously in some instances.

The documentary makes use of an old UN adversary, Daniel P. Moynihan, a former American ambassador to the UN, now a US senator. He appears to be rather ambivalent about the UN. In one instance he says that ''it doesn't work because . . . in a sense it doesn't do any of the things which the founders expected it might do. . . . But this is not the fault of the UN; it's the fact of the change in its membership.'' At another point, however, he says the UN is important to us, because ''with about two-thirds of the nations in the world today . . . the only relationships we have are at the United Nations.''

In the long run, concludes Marshall Frady, the UN ''remains still the best promise, however compromised, to realize that old dream mentioned in Isaiah: '. . . nations . . . shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.' ''

But that doesn't mean the international community should accept the apparently overwhelming bureaucratic costs in the human rights budget when more of that money could be spent actively pinpointing the human rights violations which are rampant all over the world.

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