WASHINGTON -- The United Nations can't seem to celebrate its 50th anniversary without a battle.
This battle is over what will be said -- and not said -- in a chronicle commissioned by the world body as it celebrates its 50th anniversary around the world today.
As conflicts testing the United Nations go, this one is mild. But it touches on the core of the organization's desire not to offend any of its members -- many of whom have been busy killing each other and their own people during the past half-century.
The presses are ready to roll out thousands of copies of "A Vision of Hope," but the commemorative book's authors are angrily protesting more than 70 cuts in the text.
Deleted by U.N. officials were accounts of U.N. probes into central human rights issues such as apartheid in South Africa, which was a pariah state until its recent peaceful transition to majority rule; the Israeli-occupied territories, which were the subject of numerous U.N. resolutions critical of Israel; and El Salvador, where right-wing death squads killed thousands in the early 1980s.
Also excised were references to charges that both Iraq and North Korea violated international controls on nuclear weapons programs, even though these charges have been major preoccupations of both the U.N. Security Council and the zTC International Atomic Energy Agency.
In what editor Jonathan Power called "a naked act of political censorship," the United Nations, to avoid upsetting China, removed a quote extolling freedom by the Dalai Lama, spiritual and political leader of Tibetan Buddhists. The Dalai Lama became a worldwide symbol of human rights after fleeing his homeland in 1959 amid growing Chinese government repression. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
The offending quote: "It is in the inherent nature of human beings to yearn for freedom, equality and dignity and they have an equal right to achieve that. . . . Brute force, no matter how strongly applied, can never subdue the basic desire for freedom and dignity."
Other deletions include reports of corruption in the election of Hiroshi Nakajima of Japan as the head of the World Health Organization. Even a reference to Britain's having covered up the extent of the Irish famine in the 1840s was ordered excised.
Altogether, the cuts amount to "intellectual cleansing," says Mr. Power, a syndicated columnist whose team of writers removed their names from the book's chapters in protest.
'Happy birthday' book
"As much as I can make sense of it, they want a 'happy birthday' book. They want no one upset at the party," Mr. Power said from his home in Oxford, England.
The "party" is a series of celebrations starting today in San Francisco, where President Clinton will help commemorate the signing of the U.N. charter by 50 nations as World War II was winding down.
Other ceremonies are planned in capitals and U.N. posts as disparate as London and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The festivities will culminate in October in New York with what the United Nations promises will be one of the biggest-ever gatherings of world leaders.
The book was commissioned by the United Nations and London's Regency Press as part of the organized hoopla. It will bear the official U.N. 50th anniversary logo and contain advertisements from corporate sponsors of the festivities. The United Nations will get a share of the revenue.
Among the writers Mr. Power hired were Maurice Strong, who organized the 1992 U.N. environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Richard Reoch, a former official of Amnesty International, an organization that monitors human rights violations worldwide.
From the outset, the authors and the United Nations seem to have had different ideas on what the book should be. Mr. Power knew the work would require U.N. approval, but says it was supposed to be "an independent overview of the U.N.'s first 50 years and its future challenges."
Gillian Martin Sorensen, the adviser to Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in charge of the anniversary events, describes it more as a souvenir.
"It is a commemorative anniversary edition," said Mrs. Sorensen, the wife of Theodore C. Sorensen, the lawyer and memoirist of the Kennedy presidency.
She said the book was supposed to be done in a "positive spirit."
A major reason Regency Press was chosen, she says, is that U.N. officials were impressed by its volume on Queen Elizabeth's Jubilee, which showed a "commemorative spirit" and didn't criticize the royal family.
What Mrs. Sorensen calls "minimal editing" Mr. Power describes as a "scalpel" removing "several layers of flesh." The result, he says, is a dishonest book.
In March, Mr. Power tried unsuccessfully to get Mr. Boutros-Ghali to intervene, warning that the book would be "laughed out of court by reviewers or ridiculed by columnists" if the deletions stood. The final struggle occurred over references to individual member countries and the quote from the Dalai Lama.
In what Mr. Reoch called "quite a tame piece," he cited countries investigated by the U.N. commission on human rights. He said in a letter to Mrs. Sorensen that he did so because the notion of probing a member nation's human rights practices marked a breakthrough for the commission.
But Mrs. Sorensen replied that he had not included the responses of the accused countries or the conclusions of U.N. officials, nor did he mention whether the violations cited had been addressed.
"Each situation would require its own treatise to be fairly examined," and thus mentioning the countries was "not appropriate," she wrote Mr. Reoch. She flatly rejected the use of the Dalai Lama's comment about freedom, made during the 1993 world conference on human rights, as "not acceptable."
In an interview, Mrs. Sorensen said she was following a normal practice for U.N. publications, which holds that "member states should not be criticized by name."
"This was not a book for bashing individual countries," she said.
Sensitive to members
As for the Dalai Lama, she said, "Of course, China is a major member state. We try to be sensitive to that."
Mr. Power says the suggestion that the United Nations routinely avoids criticizing member countries is incorrect.
"If you look at the United Nations Development Programme's annual human development report, you can see that it is very critical of individual countries," he said. "Likewise, the United Nations Children's Fund's annual report."
The authors and the editor have not returned their fees, which range from $500 to, in Mr. Power's case, $20,000. "Our principles only go so far," Mr. Power acknowledged.
And the authors didn't withdraw their articles, which leaves Mrs. Sorensen scornful.
"This is a couple of disgruntled authors," she said. "They had every opportunity to walk out. They took their fees. They were writers for hire."