Unloved UN has unhappy birthday

The world body, 50 today, is in dire need of radical reform
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When Australia's ambassador to the United Nations in New York, Richard Butler, recently appeared on the organisation's in-house television channel, heads were nodding from the cavernous conference rooms in the basement all the way up to the Secretary-General's eyrie on the 38th floor. With Antipodean bluntness, he declared: "This bureaucracy was designed in Hell. Let's change it".

This is the sentiment, more or less, that will lie only very slightly below the surface in San Francisco today, when President Bill Clinton leads celebrations marking the signing of the UN's founding charter in that city exactly 50 years ago. While thanks will be given for all that the UN has achieved, the minds of the President and of Boutros Boutros- Ghali, the Secretary-General, will be on the next five decades. Which way now?

Most striking about today's festivities may be the contrast between the idealism and excitement that surrounded the UN at its creation, just at the close of the Second World War, and the aura of cynicism and exasperation that has settled about it today. It is unfortunate for Mr Boutros-Ghali that this anniversary year, which he had hoped to use to showcase the UN, has seen a sharp worsening of many of the organisation's most critical problems. Esteem for the UN is at rock-bottom.

The elements of the crisis include the deepening antipathy towards the UN in Washington the disasters associated with peace-keeping in Somalia and Bosnia, and the never-ending flirtation with insolvency. Last week, the Secretary-General reported that the UN is owed $2.8bn (pounds 1.79bn) and by the year's end may have only enough cash to last it two weeks.

Against this background, proposals for reform and reinvention abound. Through all of the ideas, one common thread emerges: the UN has to become more efficient, less bloated and less corrupt.

Madeleine Albright, the US representative, suggested last week that it become less of a jobs-for-life bureaucracy. "It needs to be run like a better corporation,'' she said. ''More decisions need to be made by the board of directors, the chief administrative officers need to be more responsible to the board; various parts need to be privatised.''

To be fair, some progress has been made. In recent months, Mr Boutros- Ghali appointed a former chief executive of Price Waterhouse, Joseph Connor, as an Under-Secretary-General to bring some discipline back into internal management and personnel policy. Also, a former German diplomat, Karl Paschke, was imported to seek out fraud and waste.

Many of the ideas for a broader reform of the UN's own internal architecture are reflected in a report issued last week by Yale University and the Ford Foundation. Called the "United Nations in its Second Half- Century", it asks for the creation of two new councils of equal standing and status to the existing Security Council. The Economic Council and the Social Council would take over the UN's non-security tasks from the existing Economic and Social Committee (Ecosoc), considered flabby and hopeless.

An issue that will not go away is the expansion of the Security Council's membership. Here, the Yale-Ford report recommends raising the membership from 15 to 23, with no more than five new permanent members. Among the latter, presumably, would be Germany and Japan, but it would be the selection of the other three that would generate controversy.

By most accounts, this is a matter that, while urgent, may not be resolved for several more years.

There is support in the report for the creation of a standing rapid-reaction force of 10,000 volunteer troops to help lend the Security Council authority in its peace-keeping and peace-enforcement operations.

Mending some of its ways might help, but what the UN needs is a rebirth of the idealism that launched it 50 years ago.