UN reform vote improves prospect of restored US funding. Year marked by financial woes closes with promise of change

Exhausted but generally pleased, diplomats and staff have wrapped up the UN's 41st General Assembly. It was a historic session, not for any major political victories, but for the air of crisis over the UN's own raison d'^etre - a crisis that manifested itself in serious financial troubles and earnest self-examination.

In the end, in an effort to keep the UN from going bankrupt, the General Assembly accepted unanimously a package of reforms designed to streamline the UN's operation and give major funders more say in the budgetmaking process. The passage of the resolution on reform does not end the UN's financial crisis, but it does send a signal to the world - and in particular to Capitol Hill, where the fate of more than half the United States' 1986 assessment hangs in the balance - that the UN is serious about reform.

The reform effort was precipitated by the US decision to withhold $110 million of the $210 million it owed for this year - a devastating blow to an organization whose total budget is $830 million. The US held back the funds to protest what it saw as mismanagement and anti-American bias.

Now, says US Ambassador Vernon Walters, the reform resolution, passed on Friday, ``will greatly strengthen my hand in going back to the US Congress'' to ask for restored funding.

Still, diplomats closely involved with the funding crisis say it is unlikely that Congress will restore all of the withheld funds, some of which are tied to Gramm-Rudman budget-cutting legislation.

The largest chunk of money Congress can restore is the some $42 million withheld because of the so-called Kassebaum amendment, which calls for the US to cut its contribution from 25 percent to 20 percent of the UN budget until the UN's biggest donors are given ``weighted voting'' on the budget. The US complains that the world's poorer nations, which outnumber developed nations in the 159-nation body, controlled the UN budget because of the UN's one-nation, one-vote system.

Under last week's compromise, budget decisions in a key committee must now be reached by consensus - which in effect allows veto rights to each member, large donor and small, of the 21-nation Committee for Program and Coordination. Though consensus is not weighted voting, informed observers say they believe Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R) of Kansas will ask Congress to rescind the amendment she sponsored.

``The weighted-voting provision was symbolic,'' a diplomat says. ``What Congress wants is a good-faith effort'' at reform, something he believes has taken place.

Some UN watchers feel the Reagan administration faces an uphill battle in persuading Congress to restore funding. Earlier in President Reagan's tenure, persistent complaints that the UN was an ineffective debating society and a nest of spies hurt support in Congress to such a degree that the UN was in danger of losing fully 70 percent of the US assessment. Now these very same administration members, such as Alan Keyes, the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, and Secretary of State George Shultz are set to lobby on Capitol Hill for restored UN funding.

``The US administration needs to overcome a credibility problem over [its position on] the UN,'' says one UN observer. ``The US may have shot itself in the foot creating a lot of antagonism on this.''

The UN is a peripheral issue on Capitol Hill, and so the administration may have a hard time convincing congressmen that the UN is a worthwhile organization after all, he says. He also points to concern among some member nations that, in its push for reform, the US is more interested in boosting its influence at the UN than helping make the UN more effective.

The US has come under heavy criticism at the UN for withholding funds, a practice that many say violates the UN Charter. But these critics concede that it was the US maneuver that led to serious reform efforts - reform that has been widely talked about at the UN since the 1970s with little results. Included in the reform package is a requirement to cut 25 percent of the UN Secretariat's upper management and 15 percent of lower management. Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar has already eliminated eight top positions and trimmed the budget by $60 million.

Ed Luck, president of the UN Association of the USA, agrees that the financial crisis was necessary to spur reform. But, he says, ``a crisis is not enough, because it's fundamentally a negative thing. You need an atmosphere that attracts the best people ... so there's a demand for quality.''

In one respect, that atmosphere appears already to be developing. In recent interviews at the UN, many diplomats spoke of a trend toward moderation among third-world nations in their speeches and resolutions. The rhetoric is less strident. There is less of a tendency to blame the West for the third world's ills.

``The reasons are fundamental,'' says Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's ambassador to the UN. ``One must look at the UN in its 41-year time frame.'' For the first 15 years, he says, the UN was pro-US. Then came decolonization, and the third world discovered its voice - and its strength in numbers - at the UN. With decolonization came great expectations of a ``North-South dialogue'' and a transfer of wealth from developed to underdeveloped countries. This did not materialize, resulting in the strident rhetoric of the past 25 years.

Another diplomat, from a Western country, calls the trend ``creeping realism.'' He saw its clearest manifestation yet at last spring's special General Assembly session on Africa where, for the first time, the African nations made it clear that they take primary responsibility for their own development - and that the days of blaming their former colonial rulers for their woes are over. This diplomat feels that talk of anti-US bias at the UN is exaggerated, and that more and more, voting on resolutions is going the Americans' way. The perennial challenge to Israel's right to sit in the UN points to this trend: Every year the Arabs get fewer and fewer votes.

Another sign of ``creeping realism,'' he says, was the lack this fall of a major resolution on South African sanctions, which was expected to be one of the key agenda items of the 41st General Assembly. The black African nations did not sponsor a resolution, because they realized that the US and Britain would veto it, making Pretoria feel good, the diplomat says. He also cites fear that South Africa would try to further its alleged destabilization of neighboring states.

The 41st General Assembly passed resolutions condemning apartheid (South Africa's system of strict racial separation) as well as the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, alleged human rights abuses in a handful of countries, and last April's US air attack on Libya. But it was the specter of bankruptcy that dominated this session of the assembly.

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