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Third world: rich nations pay UN ideals little more than lip service

The view from the rich nations is familiar: An almost powerless but still-useful United Nations celebrating its 40th anniversary in a welter of flags, limousines, and speeches, and a coming Reagan-Gorbachev summit dominating headlines and television screens.

But the view from much of the poorer two-thirds of the world -- the third world -- is different:

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A United Nations celebration taken over by major powers which, beneath the rhetoric and behind the headlines, give UN ideals little more than lip service.

Superpowers which, while building arms at a rapid pace, pay too little attention to urgent third-world issues: huge debts, population growth rates, commodity prices, poverty, and literacy.

A summit meeting which is virtually irrelevant to the daily concerns of most Africans and Asians, but which arouses mixed feelings among the still-small layers of educated elite.

On the one hand, those elites know that if a nuclear bomb is dropped, their own people will be at risk. So they follow preparations for the summit while anxiously looking for any sign of agreements that could limit the arms-spending spiral.

On the other hand, third-world governments can only appeal to United States and Soviet leaders to reduce armaments, while being excluded themselves from crucial decisions, and with no guarantee that any money saved by arms control pacts would be used to reduce their debts or raise their living standards.

In an office high above Manhattan streets choked with limousines, lined with blue police barriers, and strobe-lit by the flashing red lights on official vehicles, a prominent Asian diplomat spoke with idealism tempered by weary realism.

``Eighty world leaders are here for the 40th birthday,'' he said, ``not because they think the UN itself is so great, but because they are grandstanding, playing politics, generating publicity for themselves back home. ``The third world knows the big boys -- the US, Western Europe, etc. -- are trying to run the show.

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``But let's face it, the developing countries are maneuvering to use the forum for their own purposes as well -- look at [Nicaragua's] Daniel Ortega jogging in Central Park and attracting all that press attention. Look at [Israel's Prime Minister Shimon] Peres offering to go to Jordan.''

At the same time, other Asians and Africans felt that President Reagan's rhetoric since he came into office supporting UN ideals is not matched by his administration's actual policies towards the UN or third-world countries as a whole.

``I would rather Reagan stayed in the White House and really tried to help the third world than see him come to the UN, make a speech, then go home and cut his foreign aid budgets,'' says one Kenyan.

Said a veteran UN diplomat in daily touch with third-world delegations ``Some of the poorer governments are saying that if the UN is really as powerless as the bigger powers say, the big leaders wouldn't come here in such numbers. But these governments also complain that the `biggies' -- the US, the Soviets and so on -- are trying to take over the 40th anniversary and Charter Day [Oct. 24] with their speeches.''

(Originally, no speeches were planned for Oct. 24. But the US wanted President Reagan to speak, the Soviets insisted on equal time for their Foreign Minister, and representatives of other permanent members of the Security Council -- Britain, France, and China -- joined in, with India's Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi speaking for the third world.)

``So the third world feels its own diplomatic `house,' the UN, is being noticed by the `biggies' . . . but that the `biggies' are not talking about debt, poverty, and commodity prices, and so on.''

An African diplomat added: ``In 1885, a conference in Berlin drew up the colonial boundaries of Africa without having invited a single African to take part. Now Reagan and Gorbachev are to meet, to talk about decisions that can affect the ultimate fate of Africans, and once again Africans are excluded.''

This diplomat added, ``Many African intellectuals just don't believe there will be a nuclear war. Neither superpower wants to endanger its own people. If you live in Nairobi or the Sahel or in southern Africa, the Geneva summit is a distant event, both mentally and geographically.

``Hunger, drought, famine relief, finding water, harvesting . . . all these are more important. Besides,'' he added, ``we don't think money saved by any arms agreement will come to us, in terms of debt relief and development.

``I've read that if one fleet of war-ships was not built, the money saved could immunize all the poor children in the world. But it isn't so in practice, because the money would be spent elsewhere.''

On two points diplomats from the third world contacted by this newspaper agreed:

Their countries were being treated badly by rich nations who were tough on debt repayments while doing little to improve commodity prices or boost foreign aid for development in real terms.

The UN, for all its faults, was essential to the third world as a diplomatic meeting ground, as a megaphone for its own opinions, as a way to generate headlines, and as a means of bringing focus to issues back home.

``No one imagines the big powers take much notice of what we say day by day,'' one diplomat commented, ``but in the long-term we can frame issues and indicate priorities.''

A thoughtful speech indicating third-world priorities in the midst of the UN anniversary came from Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa.

He suggested:

First, a General Assembly emergency resolution calling on the two superpowers to reduce arms spending by 10 percent a year for five years beginning 1986/87, with much of the $60 billion saved used to reduce poor nation debt.

Second, donor nations should urgently consider rescheduling interest rates on debts, increasing grants, spending more money in poorer countries, stabilizing commodity prices, and guaranteeing access to markets.

Otherwise, he said, the third world faced ``economic recolonization'' -- the loss of independence through the loss of economic control.

President Salvador Blanco of the Dominican Republic said the foreign debt burden of Latin America (he put it at $360 billion) must be eased.

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