THE blue police barricades stacked two and three deep across from the United Nations, ready for use in the frequent antiwar protests, are gone now. The number of UN visitors, sharply down last year, is picking up again. The Security Council still meets often, but rarely until 3 a.m. or through the weekend. Arabs from opposing sides of the Gulf war now chat freely in the delegates' lounge. In short, the United Nations is a decidedly more relaxed place these days. The easing of tensions is almost palpable.
Yet sentiments are mixed. Many delegates are pleased and proud the UN played a key role in the Gulf conflict and that the coalition held. "I think there's more of a feeling now that perhaps the UN can actually do something," says a Costa Rican diplomat. A Washington Post-ABC News survey after the war found 70 percent of those questioned said they had gained respect for the UN.
Some delegates, however, still insist the war need never have happened. They say the north-south economic issues at the root of the conflict need urgent attention. Abdalla Saleh al-Ashtal, Yemen's ambassador to the UN, who failed during the conflict to get the Security Council to halt the bombing and ease the trade embargo, notes that six of the world's richest and poorest nations are Arab. A new report from the UN Conference on Trade and Development confirms that the world's poorest nations took the ha rdest blows economically during the conflict in reduced tourist and export revenue and the return of Gulf workers.
Whatever their views on the UN's role, most delegates interviewed agree that the effects of the war will be long lasting. Just a few days ago UN Undersecretary-General Martti Ahtisaari, head of a UN assessment team just back from Iraq, reported "near apocalyptic" damage. Except for roads, he said, the entire economic infrastructure has been destroyed. Fuel and electricity are top needs. The experience left Mr. Ahtisaari "more convinced of the virtues of diplomacy." The UN sanctions committee and the Co uncil promptly voted to ease restrictions on food, fuel, and other key supplies. Ahtisaari is in Kuwait this week to assess damage there.
A senior UN official says Iraq has proven "tremendously pragmatic" in responding to Council cease-fire terms. Yet a US-led effort to set more detailed conditions in another Council resolution continues this week. An Egyptian diplomat says there is a certain "excitement" building among all members as to how the final text will look. The new version calls for the destruction of Iraq's ballistic missiles and chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. It calls on Iraq to accept its 1963 border agreement wit h Kuwait and create a mechanism by which reparations can be paid. Though US Ambassador Thomas Pickering often stresses that no Council veto has been cast since May 1990, both China and France are known to have reservations about the new proposal.
World attention focuses on the Council. Yet myriad other UN activities, including numerous committee meetings, proceed routinely. Last week, for instance, Sir Edmund Hillary was introduced as UNICEF's new special representative for children of the Himalayas while requests for disaster relief came in from Sudan (drought) and Malawi (floods). Afghanistan protested Pakistani attacks across the border. And UN officials observed the 31st International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
And though the antiwar demonstrators are gone, protests for other causes continue outside the UN. Noting that there was one last week, a UN guard at the front gate pauses to recall the cause. Soon he smiles and snaps his fingers: "They wanted to get the Chinese out of Katmandu."