Leading Article: Trouble spots within the UN

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The Independent Online
THIS was supposed to have been the decade of the United Nations, the new era in which the words 'international community' would at last acquire meaning. Freed from the paralysis of the Cold War, the UN would be able to fulfil the ideals on which it was founded: promoting peace, international co-operation and observance of the high- minded declarations on human rights that most of its members have signed.

Reality has turned out differently. The organisation is beset by internal problems as it struggles to meet an enormous increase in the demands made upon it. Corruption seems endemic, from the lowliest troops on the ground in Bosnia to the senior officials feathering their nests in New York or drawing princely salaries for staying at home and doing nothing. Criticisms are mounting of the UN's structure, administration and accounting, as well as of its effectiveness in the many trouble spots where it operates. Meanwhile, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, its Secretary-General, complains that he is not being given the means to do the jobs required of him, and that he is running out of funds because some member states - principally the United States, Japan and Russia - are not paying their dues.

The problems are linked. One of the reasons the US is holding back money is to put pressure on the UN to reform. Although waste and corruption are inevitable in any large international organisation not subject to the discipline of market forces or a single government, they are clearly out of hand at the UN, accounting for anything between pounds 200m and pounds 500m of funds provided by the long-suffering taxpayers of member states. The whistle was blown earlier this year by Dick Thornburgh, a former US attorney general, who was removed from a senior administrative post at the UN to make way for a Clinton appointee. Before he left he produced a devastating report on corruption, which was suppressed and largely ignored. This week, however, Mr Boutros-Ghali followed up one of his suggestions by appointing Mohamed Aly Niazi, an Egyptian accountant, to root out corruption - with the help of a staff of 90. Thus pressure and publicity may at last be having some effect, though promises do not guarantee performance. There is a widespread assumption that investigation into the black- market activities of UN troops in Bosnia will be muted in order not to cause offence to member nations.

Part of the trouble derives from the bureaucratic culture that prevails in New York, where officials can further their careers better by keeping their heads down and covering the incompetence or malfeasance of their colleagues than by demonstrating zeal and honesty. Many are also placed there by their regimes, so if they are sacked or disciplined, there may be political repercussions. There is no effective system of control and accountability, and far too much secrecy.

There is also very poor machinery for getting action on reports from the many courageous UN personnel in the field. The present situation in Mostar was foreseen in March, and much of what has happened in the rest of Bosnia was no surprise to those on the spot. Yet policy appears to be driven largely by the television cameras of Western nations.

Ultimately, the UN cannot be much more than the sum of its parts. If its most powerful and responsible members do not insist on reform, and if they throw blue-helmeted forces into trouble spots without sufficient thought, or fail to put them in early when warnings of trouble abound, the UN cannot be effective.

The tasks now heaped upon the the organisation reflect the hopes it still engenders in a world where national governments are less and less able or willing to act on their own. Last year the number of military and police personnel deployed by the UN in peace-keeping activities rose from 11,000 to 52,000. There are now 13 peace-keeping operations under way, most of them started since 1988. Huge sums of money are being spent, many lives are being lost and more endangered. Much good is being done. But the discrepancy between the brave and dedicated work of many UN soldiers and officials, and the rotten, creaky and overweighted structure they represent, is now too great to tolerate. There is no shortage of ideas for reform. What is lacking is the political will among member states.