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Carry on policing, world tells UN

UN Anniversary: World body gets another 50 years but China hits at big power interference

New York

With three days of speeches, gala receptions and non-stop schmoozing behind them, world leaders yesterday gave the United Nations on its fiftieth birthday, the gift of continuing life for another 50 years.

With the last speakers due to take the podium last night, heads of state and government were due to adopt a seven-page declaration reaffirming the the goals of the UN's founding charter while pledging to launch it on a course of radical reform.

In their statement, the object of intense behind-closed-doors negotiation until almost the last moment, the leaders vowed to "give to the 21st century a UN equipped, financed and structured to serve effectively the peoples in whose name it was established".

As far it goes, the document will be a welcome conclusion for the Secretary- General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who at the beginning of the session dwelled on the UN's financial crisis and lamented the "sad news" that member states no longer regard the UN as a priority. No one advocated closing the UN and everyone credited it with keeping humanity free of global war since 1945.

But how genuine is the reaffirmation expressed by the leaders and how quickly they will be able to agree on improved financing and internal reforms, including the expansion of membership of the Security Council, remains to be seen. Neither the declaration nor any but a very few of the leaders' speeches offered any signposts for the way forward.

Some leaders voiced scepticism about the prospects. In a speech otherwise devoted to peace in his country, the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, concluded with this thought on all of the "nice and noble words" delivered from the podium: "One of the ancient holy scripts says: 'Judge them according to their deeds.' Let us listen to what they are saying, but let us ask them what they are doing. As soon as they return home, unfortunately, they will continue their course. It is up to us to stop them".

Mr Boutros-Ghali has nailed his standard to an emergency session of the UN's General Assembly early next year to reach some decisions. He was supported by John Major. A decision on whether to call such a session, which UN officials believe would help concentrate minds on resolving some of the issues, can be expected in the next few weeks.

Unquestionably most pressing is ending the financial crisis, which means extracting the some $1.3bn (pounds 0.8bn) in unpaid dues from the United States, equivalent to more than the UN's regular budget for one year. This is not an exorbitant sum - less than what it costs to run the New York Police Department for 12 months - but such is the belligerence towards the UN in the US Congress that the prospect of Mr Boutros-Ghali ever seeing it remains dim.

Mr Clinton in his speech laid out a bargain: Deliver the reforms - slimming down the bureaucracy, reducing the share that the US is expected to pay into UN coffers, cutting back on the number of UN agencies and scaling back peace-keeping - and I will prevail on Congress. It is not certain whether even then he could do such a thing. Many member states will demand that the deal be reversed: Give us the money, Washington, then we will reform.

Peace-keeping costs, which have exploded in recent years as the UN has been deployed to trouble spots worldwide such as Bosnia and Somalia, are already falling. Nato is taking over in the former Yugoslavia, the mandate in Rwanda is likely to expire at the year's end and the only countries left with an important UN presence will be Cyprus and Angola.

Britain and other industrial nations, meanwhile, agree that many UN agencies, including the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the International Labour Organisation and even Unesco, the Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in Paris, should be closed or consolidated.

Killing these bodies, which provide nice jobs for foreign civil servants, will be resisted by many, however. Meanwhile, efforts to agree on who exactly should get new seats on the Security Council - Pakistan or India; Brazil or Argentina - have been mired already for months.