UNITED Nations General Assembly President Samir Shihabi was clearly unimpressed by the slim turnout last week for the daily 10 a.m. start of Assembly speeches. One day he named each missing delegation. The next day he named all delegations who showed up on time, hoping the others would get the hint.That early-morning vacuum in the General Assembly hall, however, was due to more than the usual round of late-night diplomatic receptions. Even as heads of state and foreign ministers launched into their traditional half-hour speeches, a process known as the "general debate," the news, much of it within UN walls, kept happening. Delegates were hard pressed to keep up. Standoffs with Iraq over the use of coalition helicopters and the right of UN arms inspectors to leave a Baghdad parking lot with captured documents were resolved. A British hostage was released in Lebanon. Negotiations between Salvadoran government officials and rebels, brokered in New York for the last 10 days by UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, reached a breakthrough. And the UN Security Council passed a mandatory arms embargo against all parties to the Yugoslav conflict. Though snaring few headlines, the General Assembly speeches, due to continue until Oct. 10, contain themes likely to play a key role in shaping the UN's new focus and tone. Most speakers routinely congratulated new UN members, the retiring secretary general (termed "an eminent statement" by one speaker, laboring in English), and the UN for its stand against Iraqi aggression. National cheering sections in the galleries clapped loudly at appropriate moments. The old world order is gone, and the US has emerged as the dominant world power. Though experts say any full-scale revival of anti-US rhetoric is unlikely, the US, as the lone superpower, may come in for more criticism. Cuba wants the US embargo against it to be taken up by the Assembly, and several Latin nations are urging the US to end sanctions. President Bush's insistence that the UN economic embargo against Iraq remain as long as Saddam Hussein stays in power could spur an Assembly modification. In some ways, the old East-West struggle is being replaced by a North-South struggle over equity in world resource distribution. Muhamet Ismail Kapllani, the Foreign Minister of Albania, suggests that some of the money saved from not having to fight World War III could help. Most Assembly speakers complained of the heavy burden of debt and urged freer trade. Gabon's minister of foreign affairs noted that Africa's debt alone is $270 billion and that only a vast overhaul of global economic relations can he lp. Many speakers urged more economic help for their own needy nations. Pride in sovereignty is a common theme in Assembly speeches. China, which controls Tibet and resists anything resembling UN interference in internal affairs, voted for the Yugoslav arms embargo only because Yugoslav officials wanted it. Both China and India abstained when the Council authorized humanitarian intervention to protect Iraq's Kurdish minority. Still, certain inroads on sovereignty, a right once held sacrosanct, are being made. Gianni de Michelis, Italy's Minister of Foreign Affairs, told Assembly delegates that the right to intervene for humanitarian goals was gaining ground. Jeff Laurenti of the United Nations Association of the USA says the subtle shift to international accountability in human rights has been "extraordinary" and may well pave the way for a similar shift on environmental issues.