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UN Reform Is Real, Despite US Doubts

With the election of Kofi Annan last December as the seventh head of the United Nations, it was universally recognized that the United States had succeeded in getting the candidate of its choice. What remained to be seen, however, was how quickly - and to what degree - the new secretary-general would move on a reform agenda.

We need wait no longer. Mr. Annan got off to a fast and positive start with his January visit to Washington, where he announced his strong commitment to the reform process. This was followed in March by a 10-point reform package, which he was quick to point out comprised only the first phase of a much larger package to come. That package was released last week in a highly detailed document titled "Renewing the United Nations: A Programme for Reform."

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"Renewing the United Nations" offers a great many proposals: some large, some small, and a few that might be called radical. One of the latter is establishment of a deputy secretary-general - an idea that has increasingly gained support among longtime UN observers, including the United Nations Association of the USA, of which I am chairman. It is thought that such a post would free the secretary-general from the more mundane concerns of his office and would thereby improve his ability to respond swiftly to emergencies - either natural or man-made. Whether the idea will find support in the General Assembly will have to be seen.

As to finances and staff, the organization aims to do more with less. In March, Annan announced two proposals:

* A $123 million reduction in the 1998-99 biennium budget, following four years of no growth.

* The elimination of some 1,000 posts - on top of the nearly 2,000 posts already eliminated in recent years, making a total staff reduction of nearly 25 percent.

He now proposes to create a $1 billion Revolving Credit Fund to address acute cash shortages created by nonpayment of member dues. Here, he might have some trouble. However useful this proposal, it's questionable that wealthy states would give to the fund, notably the US, given its huge arrears. Still, the Annan proposal is a wake-up call to the US, specifically, and to a handful of other seriously delinquent states that together threaten to bankrupt the organization.

In terms of alternative financing, Annan's options are conspicuously few. The charter makes for no other income allowance than the payment of legal dues. Absent such payments, the UN has nowhere to turn. It can't borrow, it can't issue notes of credit, and it can't force member states to pay, as we have seen all too clearly.

A recently passed Helms-Biden amendment to the Senate appropriations bill, which in effect would wipe out unilaterally some $1.6 billion indebtedness to the UN regular budget, peacekeeping, and the specialized agencies with a payment of only $819 million (and this with some 38 conditions!) is a bad deal all around. It is bad for the UN because it leaves some $800 million in unpaid bills; bad for the other UN member states because they are owed much of the arrears as reimbursement for peacekeeping troops; and bad for the US because we are seen as untrustworthy in fulfilling our legal obligations. Make no mistake: We are obligated to pay our dues while we work to advance reform.

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Whether we are wholly satisfied with the reforms should not blind us to the fact that the UN of today is significantly different than it was five years - or even five months - ago. Change, said Kofi Annan, is a process, not an event. The process is well underway. It deserves the support of all of us.

* John C. Whitehead, deputy secretary of state under President Reagan, chairs the United Nations Association of the USA, a national membership organization.

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