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U.N. censorship clouds celebration


LONDON -- Next week most of the world's leaders will meet in New York to celebrate the United Nation's 50th anniversary. Everyone, in the end, even if they don't pay their dues, even as they criticize it, wants it to stay in place. It remains the best all-in-one forum for settling disputes, highlighting oppression, quenching financial crises, aiding the poor and keeping the airlines and the post moving -- and it's all done on a budget of less than a major western city.

A culture of dishonesty

If we didn't have it, we would want to create it. But would we want to recreate it with its most serious flaw -- a culture of dishonesty, that is stuffed with apparatchiks, whose reflexes are too often to fudge and mudge? No!

Censorship has become part of its work-a-day ethos. Hide, play down, shunt aside, obfuscate what is controversial, particularly if it's about human rights or upsets a heavyweight veto member of the Security Council.

Is it the Chinese who are calling too many shots? It certainly is one possible conclusion, if one sifts through the fall-out from the production of a U.N. anniversary book, "Visions of Hope," that I edited. This is a U.N.-commissioned, but supposedly independent, study of the workings of the organization, that was paid for by corporate sponsors.

The book was to be published in time for the celebrations in June in San Francisco to mark the signing of the charter. But publication was scuttled after it became the subject of a bitter and extensively reported row between the United Nations and ** the book's contributors over censorship of important passages.

After all the contributors decided to take their names off their chapters, the book will now be published in time for next week's summit. But "published" is perhaps the wrong word. While 200,000 copies will go to schools all over the world, in New York itself the United Nations are trying to keep it under wraps. It will not be distributed to delegations or to the U.N. press corps. The intention is clear: This controversial book is not going to be allowed to bother the big birthday bash.

Air brushing history

Interestingly, the apparatchik that is doing the hatchet job is the Secretary-General's Special Advisor for Public Policy, a full-blooded American, Gillian Sorensen, wife of Ted Sorensen, President John Kennedy's most trusted advisor.

One of the book's contributors is Richard Reoch, formerly head of information at Amnesty International, who told the New York Times when the row first broke that "we know what editing is, and we know what censorship is." He's now produced, along with some of the other contributors, a telling pamphlet, wryly entitled "The Revision of Hope."

The cuts to the book that they highlight have all the hallmarks of a Chinese executioner:

* no mention that Chinese defense spending is rising unnaturally fast.

* no mention of Chinese imperial ambitions over the oil-rich Spratly Islands.

* no mention that the Dalai Lama was denied permission to speak at the U.N. Conference on Human Rights two years ago.

But as part of their fudge and mudge, the U.N. apparatchiks have tried to cover their trail by balancing these cuts that they thought would offend the Chinese, with cuts of paragraphs that they presumed would upset other veto-wielding members:

* deletions of photo captions on French nuclear tests and Soviet tanks invading Czechoslovakia, deletions of criticism of western influence on the Security Council, deletions of criticism of the U.S. Congress for its growing hostility to the United Nations, deletion of the record of the vote on the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The bureaucracy as usual

No, it's probably not Chinese influence. It's worse than that. This is just the way members of the U.N. bureaucracy too often work. They inhabit a culture of paranoia, fearful always that a powerful member country (or in the Cold War days, the Group of 77) is looking over their shoulder.

It is this that makes them lose their judgment about right and wrong. And this is why the wise men who wrote the charter inserted Article 100, to protect them against being morally neutered. But it is up to the Secretary-General -- and this is the present incumbent's greatest weakness -- to enforce it.

The same institution that framed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is now itself suppressing information about human rights abuses and become a censor in its own right. But don't "we the people," to quote the opening words of the charter, have a word? We do need the UN, but what we don't need is intellectual cleansing of historical events that some of its more powerful members find difficult to publicly acknowledge.

Jonathan Power writes on international matters.

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