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Don't Exaggerate The UN's Faults

A SERIES of articles in The Washington Post in September entitled "The UN Empire" describes in considerable detail past and present examples of waste and mismanagement in the international organization. The emphasis is on problems of relief delivery in Africa, the soaring costs and minimal oversight of peacekeeping operations, overelaborate and expensive reports and publications, seemingly unnecessary United Nations offices around the world, and excessive travel and conferencing. Overall, the message is that the UN bureaucracy needs greater oversight and substantial pruning. Only passing references are made to the valor and sacrifices of individuals serving today in troubled areas under the UN banner.

The problems of the organization cannot be minimized. From its beginning, the UN has faced the deep divisions that were characteristic of the cold war, augmented and complicated by the claims and attitudes of nations emerging from colonial status. Individuals and governments of the new nations sought recognition and a claim on the tempting benefits of international civil service. The United States and its principal Western friends sought unsuccessfully to maintain both fiscal and policy control in a Gene ral Assembly increasingly dominated by the third world.

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The structural problems have been compounded by Security Council mandates - many supported by the US - that have placed new burdens on the organization. These mandates have required the secretary-general and his Secretariat staff to deal with conflict and famine in highly volatile areas without the corresponding provision of adequate funds.

Whether in the structure or the operations of the UN, reforms and improvements are difficult, but not impossible, to carry out. The new secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has announced internal reform as one of his priorities. Changes in personnel are not easily made, however; national and regional sensitivities and pressures from within the Secretariat staff tend to protect international civil servants from all but the most egregious weaknesses. Beyond that, reforms encounter the desire of major third-world nations, such as India, and the economic giants, Japan and Germany, for permanent seats on the Security Council - possibly at the expense of seats now held by Britain and France.

Nevertheless, without discounting the seriousness of the problems within the UN, the situation can be put in a broader context. Similar cases of fiscal mismanagement, agencies that will not die, poorly delivered relief in emergencies, and the protection of the less competent from dismissal can be found in every one of the member governments - including the US. The normal weaknesses of bureaucratic establishments are, not surprisingly, compounded in a multinational body.

The problems of the UN create a special dilemma in Washington. At a time when the international organization is seen as more and more central to the resolution of regional issues, critics of the organization, including those ideologically opposed to "world government," will find ammunition in their efforts to restrict funding and participation in the UN and its specialized organizations. The task of those who would support the payment of more than $700 million in arrearages owed by the US and appropriati ons for additional peacekeeping and relief operations will not be made easier by revelations of weakness and mismanagement.

The concerns of the US, which is obligated to pay 25 percent of UN costs, are legitimate. Efforts at reform must continue. But an emphasis on the negative aspects of the global organization should not obscure the indispensability of the UN in today's world. Neither the US nor any other nation has demonstrated willingness, unilaterally, to take on such burdens as the establishment of peace in Cambodia or the delivery of relief in Bosnia or Somalia. As the repeated requests to the Security Council demonstr ate, the UN offers the only global framework for dealing with the growing host of post-cold-war problems. Its shortcomings must be corrected, but they should not be an excuse for the US or other member nations to step back from active support.

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