Party Guests Critique the Host at UN 50th Gala

Talk of reform, rather than action, dominated days of speeches. But the genial mood was pierced by calls for paying dues, power sharing, and helping poor.

MISSING were not just the party hats and balloons but an atmosphere of genuine celebration.

In the end, the United Nations' 50th birthday party Oct. 22-24 was less a time for back-slapping and reveling in past successes than a wake-up call to members to revitalize and reform the UN for the 21st century. Though the gathering lacked the cold-war edge it might have had a few years ago, ''crisis'' was still ''the word of the day,'' noted Austrian President Thomas Klestil.

In what UN officials termed the largest gathering of world leaders in history, the emphasis was on unfinished work, particularly in development, and on the current UN financial crisis.

Representatives of all but seven of the UN's 185 member nations, mostly presidents and prime ministers, took five-minute turns at the microphone in the General Assembly as security guards stood watch on both sides of the podium.

Despite the formal protocol and the elaborate security, including boats patrolling the East River, there was a family feeling to this gathering.

The photo session helped to set the tone. Fidgety world leaders of various sizes were arranged for the benefit of the best photo composition. Most broke into the desired broad grin when a banner with a smiling face was unfurled from the camera in lieu of the ''say 'cheese' '' command.

Later, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali kicked off the speechmaking with a ''welcome to your home ... the home of the world's peoples.'' Most world leaders spoke frankly. Though this was no family feud, and the tone was civil, many were critical of other members for not paying their share of the bills or for not sharing the decisionmaking power.

The UN financial crisis was at the top of the list for many speakers. The United States owes about $1.2 billion of the $3.2 billion the UN is owed in past and current dues from some 70 nations. President Clinton, who focused most of his speech on the need to fight global terrorism and drug- trafficking, said he was working with Congress to meet US financial obligations. Prime Minister John Major of Britain, far from sympathetic, suggested that the UN should allow ''no representation without taxation.''

Mr. Boutros-Ghali, who says the UN is close to bankruptcy, urged members to take steps to put the UN on a firmer financial base by the end of the year or to hold a special General Assembly session to deal with the crisis.

Most who took part in the three-day marathon of speakers urged more attention to the growing gap between rich and poor nations. Mario Soares, the president of Portugal, asked members to have the ''courage'' to recognize that the potentially ''explosive'' gap is widening. Many speakers pointed to a tie between poverty and political unrest. King Hussein of Jordan said, ''Peace, poverty, and backwardness do not mix.''

Boutros-Ghali, who often underscores that point himself, has complained that peacekeeping and emergency relief are taking a growing share of funds. ''Development funds are drying up,'' he said in a report to members.

French President Jacques Chirac called for concentrating a larger share of bilateral and multilateral aid on countries that are least developed, particularly those in Africa. ''Africa is making progress,'' he said. ''Let us help it to succeed.''

Several speakers pointed to Africa as the continent in greatest need and as the site of some of the UN's most remarkable achievements. After others noted that the number of independent African states shot from four to 53 in 50 years, President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire said the UN flag represents the ''universal emblem of decolonization'' to Africans. Yet President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda noted the lack of a skilled middle class in many countries, including his own, which he described as 92 percent peasants. He insisted that aid is an ongoing obligation to compensate for the ''plunder'' of Africa in the past.

'Service to humankind'

Wealthier UN members were urged to take a broad view of their self-interest. ''No one, in the North or the South, can escape the cold fact that we are a single humanity,'' said South African President Nelson Mandela.

A draft declaration of recommitment to UN goals adopted by the General Assembly Oct. 24 notes that one-fifth of the world's 5.7 billion people live in extreme poverty. It commits the UN to ''greater service to humankind, especially the suffering and the deeply deprived.''

Calls for reform

Calls for reform covered a wide range of concerns. The third world clearly wants a larger voice in decisionmaking, while leaders of the US, Britain, and France stressed the need to streamline the UN for greater efficiency.

Several developing nations complained of the dominance of the Security Council by its five permanent members. Cuba's President Fidel Castro Ruz drew lengthy applause when he said abuse of authority by the five amounts to a ''new colonialism.'' Frederick Chiluba, the president of Zambia, accused the five of acting like ''high priests'' for the rest of the world. Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos urged a permanent Council seat for each geographic region.

The UN is far from a consensus on which nations and how many to add to the Security Council. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who has complained that NATO is usurping UN decisionmaking power in Bosnia these days, told the Assembly he favors a larger Council as long as its responsibilities also increase.

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