A Half-Century of the U.N.

June 26, 1995

The United Nations at 50 is the principal hope for humankind and a deep disappointment, a success at countless endeavors and a failure in countless others, a sieve for wasteful expenditure and cheap at the price.

Fifty years ago today, the San Francisco Opera House housed its most enduring spectacle, the signing of the United Nations Charter by representatives of 50 nations. President Truman called them "the architects of a better world. In your hands rests the future." That future to date has not been rosy, but could have been much worse.

Today, there are 185 U.N. member states, of which 48 are paid up on dues and assessments. The others owe $2.8 billion, led by the United States' $1.2 billion unpaid bill. The U.N. is not basking in glory.

The most realistic way to look at the United Nations is not as "them," but as "us" -- less an entity than a set of mechanisms its members operate. The most important member is the U.S., which has one vote in 185 on the General Assembly, one of five vetoes in the 13-member Security Council and pays (or does not) one-fourth of the institutional budget and one-third of the peace-keeping bill.

This world body has served as battleground between the Soviet bloc and the Free World, between small nations and large, between the developed capitalist countries' world and the underdeveloped world. That has caused many frustrations, but the U.N. was the best arena for these struggles.

It has a notoriously inefficient bureaucracy, partly owing to the politics of its staffing and the ineffectiveness of control. The struggle to make it leaner and meaner, even to put a merciful end to some of its redundant agencies, must go on.

The United Nations is more important than ever because the world is smaller and communications bring everyone's troubles into everyone else's homes. It is needed now as it was in 1945 "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. . . to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women of nations large and small. . . to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors. . . to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security. . ." among other purposes listed in the Charter.

In October, the United Nations starts its 51st year of operation, deeply flawed, inadequately funded, morally compromised -- a reflection of the world that continually creates it. The U.N. remains an indispensable collection of machinery that the nations of the planet need to help them get along with themselves.

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