THE United Nations has proved its usefulness in recent years - in Afghanistan, southern Africa, Central America, and in the Persian Gulf, where it helped mediate an end to the Iran-Iraq war. The UN is in the Gulf again now - but in a way that's hurting its image in some parts of the world. There are no ``blue helmets'' among the coalition forces gearing up to expel Iraq from Kuwait, and as yet no UN diplomats helping arrange a settlement to the conflict.
There is, however, a string of UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning the war. To many in the Arab world and the broader Islamic world, and to some in other nonaligned developing countries, this is not evidence of rare Security Council unanimity - or near unanimity - so much as it is a case of the UN being hijacked by Washington. Baghdad voices this sentiment most shrilly, accusing the UN and its secretary-general, Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, of being tools of President Bush.
It's a charge that fools few fair-minded people, however. The coalition that formed around the UN resolutions demanding Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait had its reasons - independent of exhortations and pressure from the United States - for imposing tough sanctions on Iraq and subsequently taking the extraordinary measure of force. Not least of these reasons was the need to oppose Saddam Hussein's invasion and annexation of a fellow UN member.
Still, the UN is suffering a loss of confidence among some of the third-world nations and peoples who used to think of the organization as their forum, a place where the weak were given standing with the strong. Now the strongest of all - the US, where the UN used to be held in contempt by many political figures - has discovered anew how useful the world body can be. (Maybe Washington will even pay its hundreds of millions of dollars in back dues.)
Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar is responsive to growing third-world concerns about the UN. He has emphasized ``how important it is for the United Nations to retain the trust of all the peoples of the world.'' Has has acknowledged, too, that the Gulf conflict ``is a testing moment for the organization.''
One thing that makes it ``testing'' is the UN's sidelines role at the moment, as combat rages. But it's not out of the picture, despite the dominance of the US in prosecuting the war.
This conflict will reach an end, and when it does the UN will become central in postwar diplomacy - arranging for an interim peacekeeping force and for long-term security in the Gulf. It should also take an active part in pushing for resolution of the other causes of tension in the Middle East. And it will shoulder the critical work of meeting humanitarian needs in war-battered Kuwait and Iraq.
The UN, more clearly today than ever, is an invaluable tool for building peace. It will have ample opportunity to regain the trust of of ``all the peoples of the world.''