Blue-ribbon panels look for ways UN can trim fat

Two blue-ribbon panels -- one external, the other in-house -- have gone into action to find ways of staving off insolvency and a ``crisis of confidence'' facing the United Nations. The situation has reached the point where it ``may threaten the very existence'' of the UN, says Elliot Richardson, chairman of the UN Association of the USA, which is running one of the studies.

The near-panic in UN circles stems from two pieces of US legislation:

The Kassebaum amendment. Started by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, it would cut the US contribution to the UN budget ($842 million for 1986) from 25 to 20 percent. The law takes effect in October unless the UN introduces reforms such as weighted voting (where votes are distributed according to how much funding each country provides).

The Gramm-Rudman budget-balancing act. This is certain to slash into Washington's voluntary contributions to activities of the UN and its agencies.

Of the UN's $265 million deficit, the bulk ($180 million) is owed for peace-keeping-related debts. The Soviets are the main offenders on the peace-keeping debts. They refuse to pay their part for three Mideast forces: those in south Lebanon, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai. Since 1974, when it was expelled from the General Assembly, South Africa has withheld $24.5 million from the regular budget.

The US has withheld some $7 million from the regular budget for certain UN expenditures relating to the Palestine Liberation Organization, Namibian rebels, the Law of the Sea, and other activities it opposes.

Also, there is $68 million overdue that relates to fiscal years in certain countries that don't coincide with the UN's fiscal year and to third-world countries too debt-ridden to pay.

In anticipation of Gramm-Rudman, Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar has ordered measures to trim $15 million from administrative expenses. They include a 20 percent reduction in the costs of travel, a freeze on the hiring of consultants, and a ban on overtime pay. He also deferred a number of scheduled UN construction projects.

While intended to exhibit determination to meet US criticism, the measures the secretary-general can activate himself are limited, remarks one ambassador.

The big money goes for programs and projects voted by the General Assembly. There, the third world holds a majority for adopting programs -- programs many Western members feel have too often turned out to be ``pork-barrel'' projects. These programs are then financed almost totally by the traditional major contributors, nearly all of them Western.

The second, in-house, panel is meant to propose steps for paring UN fat in an effort to head off implementation of the Kassebaum amendment.

Elliot Richardson's panel has a broader purpose. Besides a management and financial survey, his committee will assess what the world organization can realistically be expected to do in such fields as conflict-resolution and peacekeeping.

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