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United Nations marks a not-so-happy 50th birthday Organization's roles in Bosnia and Somalia have clouded its image


UNITED NATIONS -- Not long ago, diplomats and bureaucrats had looked forward to the 50th anniversary of the United Nations as a time of celebration and congratulation. They expected reappraisal and reform as well, but counted on dealing with this event in upbeat fashion.

Yet now, as more than 150 presidents, prime ministers and kings converge on New York this weekend for a huge birthday party, a deep depression has descended on the world organization.

Incessant critics deride the United Nations as toothless, incompetent, bloated and useless.

The organization's roles in Somalia and Bosnia have clouded perceptions.

Whether fairly or not, critics -- particularly in the United States -- blame the United Nations for the death of U.S. soldiers in a misconceived manhunt in the African nation and for the failure to stop "ethnic cleansing" and aggression in the Balkans.

Moreover, with the United States $1.4 billion in arrears in its payments, the United Nations faces nothing less than a financial catastrophe.

Some of the other debtors, such as Russia, simply cannot afford to pay their bills.

But the U.S. shortfall reflects a growing skepticism in Congress that the United Nations is up to the task of mediating the world's problems.

This skepticism worries other diplomats, for they fear that the world organization will be rendered impotent if the United States turns its back on it.

Against this grim backdrop, some U.N. supporters are looking for desperate measures to turn things around.

One suggestion circulating in New York and Washington: Persuade Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, 72, to step aside when his first five-year term expires at the end of 1996. He is, after all, the personification of the United Nations and, thus, of its failures.

Not everyone agrees that this would help.

"It is questionable whether a new secretary-general would be able to carry the day," a European ambassador said. "The problem has more to do with a general political malaise in the United States than with the secretary-general himself."

This comment reflects a growing astonishment and frustration among foreign diplomats over the intensity of anti-U.N. attitudes in the U.S. Congress.

The Clinton administration has proposed that the United Nations head off criticism by accelerating reform: cutting the Secretariat staff, combining and eliminating agencies, lowering the assessment that the United States pays for peacekeeping and adding Japan and Germany as permanent Security Council members.

Yet many in the U.N. family, though they acknowledge that the U.S. proposals and even more sweeping reforms are necessary, believe that no amount of reform will silence critics in the United States.

Some supporters of the United Nations content themselves with the knowledge that the organization has suffered through bad ++ spells before in its 50-year-history.

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