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The Evolving United Nations

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THE headline is placed atop this column with some trepidation: The United Nations generally does not make people's hearts pound.

But a colloquium at Harvard University the other day provided the occasion for reflection on the UN and its achievements, which include survival, and its structure and usefulness, which are receiving new scrutiny as the organization moves toward its 50th anniversary, to come in July 1995.

For all its rhetoric, for all its diffusiveness, the UN bears watching as an example of an organization that starts with a grand charter but little actual power and then over time, by working at the margins, is able to increase its efficacy - somewhat.

Its current period of activism goes back to Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar's brokering of the 1988 cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war. No one would argue that the UN would have had the same success in bringing to heel antagonists more powerful than these two, but the peacemaking in the Gulf was followed by other such deals elsewhere. It is by no means a perfect record; in places (Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, to name two) it has been gravely disappointing. But the blue berets, and the blue helmets, are out there around the world.

At the Harvard colloquium, cosponsored by the Irish Times, Mary Robinson, the constitutional and human rights lawyer who has been president of Ireland since December 1990, spoke on the preamble to the UN Charter, which begins, ``We the peoples of the United Nations.'' She outlined ways in which the UN can help further human rights and third-world development.

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