Reforming the U.N. for a Neighborly World

January 20, 1995|By JONATHAN POWER

London -- "We the peoples of the United Nations'' -- the opening words of the U.N. Charter echo an ambition unfulfilled after 50 years. Many of our governments, particularly the most powerful, keep their distance, only embracing it now and then for temporary advantage. The U.N. belongs to itself, owned by no one except its own officials.

To change the perception of the U.N. so that ''the peoples'' really are the first thought of its official and political representatives is both more difficult and more easy than at first it looks. More easy because, for all its faults, the Charter and the institutions it created have stood the test of time. Its best work is outstanding, as when Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold introduced blue-helmeted peacekeep- ers or in the well established, well run relief work of UNICEF and the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.

But reforming the U.N. is also more difficult because ''we the peoples'' are alienated. The U.N. is slow moving, prone to debate and indecision. Even the peacekeepers take much longer to get their feet on the ground than they did 20 years ago. (At the time of the Sinai war and the confrontation between Egypt and Israel they arrived within 48 hours of the Security Council's vote.)

Yet if we disown the U.N. we repudiate ourselves. For many of today's problems this global umbrella linking nearly all the world's 186 nations is the only effective approach. Every nation cannot on its own deal with the thunderbolts of military mayhem, starvation, chemical poisoning. We inhabit one earth. We need to make our governments give to the U.N. of their best and we need as individuals to play our parts, too.

The Cold War betrayed the U.N. It polarized it and undermined it. Fifty years are not, however, so many; many people still alive can vividly recall the years after World War II when the U.N. was a bold international actor.

They remember the very first resolution in the General Assembly, moved by Britain and co-sponsored by the United States, the Soviet Union and France, requesting specific proposals ''for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.'' It was a resolution meant to be implemented. The U.S. proposed bringing all nuclear activity, from uranium mining to power generation, under international control. It proposed to destroy its own, then minuscule, stockpile of atomic bombs. Stalin filibustered the opportunity away.

Yet if the last 50 years were not always kind to the U.N. they have showed that the essential pillars on which it was built are still sound. And the need for a U.N. remains. The change and progress of the last 50 years have benefited some countries and peoples, but by no means all. There are many -- in some countries even a majority -- who feel modern life has brought them only poverty, uncertainty and alienation. In a world armed to the teeth, war is a constant threat.

We are neighbors as no other generation on earth has been. It is our choice to be good or bad neighbors. Serious reform could make the U.N. into what its founders envisioned -- an alternative to ''the scourge of war'' that would ''promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.''

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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