On Wednesday morning at the corner of Manhattan's Third Avenue and East 45th Street, limousine driver John Giannakouros and his grey Chevrolet suffered a severe case of what New Yorkers call “limo lock.” Giannakouros, trying to get home after working all night behind the wheel, was one of thousands of Manhattan motorists who last week became victims of the 40th-anniversary celebrations of the United Nations. As world leaders converged on the city, police barricades thrown up as part of massive security around the UN’s 18-acre complex along the East River left traffic hopelessly snarled. The tangle seemed somehow apt —generated by an organization that for four decades has inspired frustration alongside idealism. Even an impatient Giannakouros wondered about the purpose of it all: “The Middle East, how many years have they been fighting there? And what about Cyprus? They’re supposed to do better than that.”
The same message was carried into the UN General Assembly by many of the presidents and prime ministers, generals and princes who celebrated the anniversary with oratory and parties. Mixed with the sometimes strained optimism of the festivities was a harsh assessment of an experiment that has fallen far short of its extraordinary promise. As the celebration reached its climax on Thursday, the 40th anniversary of the UN charter’s implementation, New Yorkers could scarcely avoid the contradictions: parades of luxurious limousines taking world leaders to make speeches condemning world poverty and ardent pleas for peace delivered behind a wall of some 3,000 New York City police, rooftop sharpshooters and 1,800 secret service agents. Still, insisted Stephen Lewis, Canada’s UN ambassador, the forum is not a monument to hypocrisy. “I think governments mean every level word of it,” he said.
Indeed, for all its flaws, few leaders were willing to write off the UN. Although it has often failed to prevent wars, the UN—and its 36 member agencies, which deal with everything from peacekeeping to drug abuse—has scored unheralded success in other fields, notably in relief programs for natural disasters and refugees. Even U.S. President Ronald Reagan—whose administration has assailed what it considers the UN’s anti-American bias—was conciliatory. Said the President at a UN luncheon hosted by Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar: “We have never stopped believing in its possibilities.”
Among the myriad problems bedevilling the UN in middle age is the alienation of the majority of members from the organization’s host and primary benefactor. When the UN’s charter was signed in San Francisco in 1945 it was
a club of 51 members, mostly white and dominated by Western democracies. Today it has 159 members, the majority nonwhite developing countries, many of them dictatorships. The decline in U.S. influence has been dramatic. Figures compiled by the U.S. state department during the last General Assembly found that the 99 member nations not formally aligned with either superpower voted the same way as Moscow 86 per cent of the time.
With both major powers increasingly reluctant to justify their actions at the General Assembly or in the 15member Security Council, UN insiders have sought ways to reduce the polarization between Moscow and Washington. One proposal: boost the influence of middle powers, such as Canada and Brazil. A recent article coauthored by Canada’s Maurice Strong, the UN’s African emergency operations co-ordinator, and Iran’s Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, former UN high commissioner for refugees, suggested that middle powers could play a more active role by paying a larger share of the UN’s $778-million (U.S.) annual budget. They proposed limiting any country’s assessment to 10 per cent. Currently, the United States pays a disproportionate 25 per cent of the UN budget, although it has served notice that it will reduce that to 20 per cent unless it is accorded greater say in financial matters. (Canada’s contribution is $23.5 million —the eighth-highest —which amounts to 3.1 per cent of the budget.)
The Strong-Sadruddin article also urged a drastic streamlining of the diffuse UN agenda, which it compared to “an octopus walking in every direction at once.” Indeed, the 147-item agenda before the UN last week resembled the traffic-jammed streets of Manhattan. Such decades-old items as apartheid in South Africa, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the arms race vied for time with only slightly more recent problems— Soviet troops in Afghanistan and controversy over U.S. interventions in Central America.
In the face of all that confronts the world body, said Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in his maiden speech to the Assembly, it is easy to see the United Nations as powerless. But echoing a theme repeated by prime ministers and dictators alike, he added, “It is, nevertheless, all we have.”
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