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UN, awash in a sea of red ink, takes steps to keep from sinking. Proposals call for cutting expenses and getting members to pay debts

The United Nations goes into emergency session today to cope with what Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar calls ``the most serious financial crisis in its history.'' In an ominous report that provides background for the General Assembly session, he suggests that unless the 159 member governments pay what they owe, the UN might well go the way of the defunct League of Nations.

While the secretary-general grapples with the short-term cash-flow problems, a committee of 18 experts headed by Norway's ambassador to the UN, Tom Vraalsen, has begun a top-to-bottom examination of the UN's structure, policies, programs, and direction.

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The group, whose proposals will go before the 41st General Assembly in mid-September, has the mandate to chart the UN's long-range course. So far, the group has come up with more than 200 preliminary ideas aimed at increasing UN efficiency and paring waste and duplication. Ambassador Vraalsen says it is too early to predict the final shape the recommendations will take, but he says a draft paper will probably emerge from the next committee meeting in mid-June.

If the final report is implemented, he predicts, the UN system ``probably will have less and be better.''

Owing principally to some members' failure to meet their regular assessments and to contribute to peacekeeping operations, the deficit situation has been building toward a climax for years. In his final message to the General Assembly in 1971, outgoing Secretary-General U Thant warned that the UN, ``after 10 or more years of deficit financing of peacekeeping operations, must face the fact that it is a bankrupt organization.''

However, Secretary-General P'erez de Cu'ellar says the ``longstanding problem has been greatly intensified'' by the threat of a ``major contributor'' -- the United States -- to withhold an estimated $90.5 million to $102.5 million from its assessed contributions in 1985 and 1986.

The US decision is prompted by two congressional initiatives: the Gramm-Rudman budget-balancing legislation and the so-called Kassebaum amendment to reduce US contributions to the UN's regular budget from 25 percent to 20 percent. At the assembly-adopted 25 percent level, the US assessment is $210 million of the UN's $842 million 1986 budget.

P'erez de Cu'ellar says the accumulated unpaid assessed contributions, as of last Dec. 31, are $242.4 million, exclusive of the peacekeeping deficit of some $180 million. An additional shortfall in 1986 would raise the arrears to as much as $275 million by the end of this year, he says.

Reserves are exhausted, and the deficit is ``increasing rapidly,'' P'erez de Cu'ellar says. Unless the assembly can agree on sound, long-range budgeting, he warns, ``damage to the United Nations could be irreparable.'' Suggesting that the very future of the UN is in jeopardy, he adds that the magnitude of the problem poses ``profound implications for the viability'' of the organization.

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To remedy the situation, the secretary-general says, the ``essential first step'' is the prompt payment of past and current assessed contributions.

He says he has ordered economic measures to save about $30 million. They include a hiring and promotion freeze, a 20 percent cut in travel budgets, limiting production of documents, and a 30 percent reduction in overtime pay. He will ask the assembly to approve a further series of economic measures, which he estimates will save an additional $30 million. These include:

Deferring construction of new conference centers for the UN's regional offices in Bangkok, Thailand and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Adjourning the 41st General Assembly session three weeks early, in late November instead of mid-December.

Trimming a week off the UN Economic and Social Council's forthcoming spring and summer session.

Reducing the reimbursement to governments for their assembly delegates' roundtrip travel to New York.

Eliminating $14.5 million in programs mandated by earlier assembly decisions.

Even so, he emphasized, such efforts will be no more than stopgap measures to alleviate the ``immediate and critical cash-flow situation.'' To put the UN on a sound financial footing, the secretary-general says, will require agreement on the fundamental issues: the scrupulous, prompt, and full payment of assessed contributions and peacekeeping costs -- past, present, and future.

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