UN strives to cope with mid-life crisis as it marks 50th year Anxious UN in no mood to celebrate as it marks 50th birthday

This is a birthday party that the United Nations is not sure it really wants. As it officially turns 50 and ministers and heads of government from around the world prepare to descend upon New York for this year's General Assembly, the organisation that was built from the ashes of the Second World War is gripped with anxiety and self-doubt.

It is a mid-life crisis that has multiple aspects. The UN's finances are in a mess, its bureaucracy is stumbling and obese and the recent history of Bosnia has weakened its sinews like some wasting disease. Added to all that is the recent evaporation of support - moral, political and financial - from the one country it depends on the most, the United States.

Even the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who in a fit of pique last week wrote a letter to the Security Council saying the UN had had enough of peace-keeping in Bosnia, seems afflicted with depression.

The General Assembly, which will start in earnest with the arrival this week of foreign ministers from all the member states, will have to do more than just note the 50th birthday. With the heads of government themselves due to address delegates at the end of next month, it is being billed by some as a giant self-therapy session. If all goes to plan, the institution just may emerge feeling a little bit better about itself.

The centrepiece of the assembly will be a final declaration that the heads of government will be asked jointly to endorse. The document, which is now in the final stages of drafting, is likely to set the end of September 1996, when the UN's 50th year closes, as the deadline for completing its various reforms.

"This place has already started to work on making itself relevant," Richard Butler, the Australian ambassador and chairman of the committee that has prepared the anniversary session, said last week. "We will insist the moment of celebration should not be lost, but that it should be an occasion when we will demand that we will change."

But even Mr Butler, one of the more forceful figures in New York, must know that completing the reform by next September will not be easy.

Most urgent of all is finding some way through the UN's financial crisis, which in recent weeks has become more critical than ever before. With more than $3.7bn (pounds 2.3bn) owed to it by member states, some are pressing Mr Boutros-Ghali to take drastic action simply to drive home the seriousness of the situation, especially to the US, which is responsible for almost half the budget gap. "He should turn out the lights," one official said, "while President Clinton is speaking."

Efforts have been under way for months inside a special committee to change the UN's system of funding, notably by redistributing the load among the member states, lessening the amount the US should have to pay, for instance, and demanding a little more from others like China. Unsurprisingly, however, the process is politically fraught and is getting nowhere slowly. Almost immediately, however, diplomats will have to respond to a new US law, which comes into effect on 1 October, unilaterally decreeing that Washington's contribution to the peace-keeping budget be cut from 32 per cent to 25 per cent.

Among all the options for paring down the UN bureaucracy, one project will continue to attract more political attention than any other, and therefore be the most difficult to untangle: the expansion of the Security Council. Discussions on this have also been continuing for over a year, and are equally mired down.

Mr Butler tentatively suggests, however, that agreement might be within reach on expanding the council, on which Britain has one of the existing five permanent seats, from the current 15 members - 10 rotate every two years - to a total of between 23 and 25. Of those, at least Japan and Germany would have permanent seats, together with about three countries from the South. It is in selecting those states - India or Pakistan? Nigeria or South Africa? - that the main difficulty lies. But Mr Butler said: "I detect a will in this house to do this within the year."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge face-off in the final
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture