Humorous Touch Breathes Life into UN Portrait

Article excerpt

The U.N. For Beginners

By Ian Williams

Writers and Readers Publishing Inc.,

152 pages, $11

DO your eyes glaze over at the mere mention of the United Nations?

If you feel a yawn coming on but think you really should know something about how the world body works and what it has or has not achieved in its first half-century, this crisp account is likely to keep you both awake and entertained.

Cartoons and photos run through the prose on every page. The tongue-in-cheek humor keeps the reader constantly on guard. (Examples: "As the cold war froze on, the UN settled into one of its most useful roles - the official scapegoat of the world;" or, "If you have a Secretary-General visiting your home, the way to his heart is to give him a 21-gun salute as if he were a head of state....") The book is one in a comic documentary series for adults that aims to rescue from intellectualism such subjects as Plato, Nietszche, Islam, and now the UN.

"I wanted to put an 'F' in front of the UN - for FUN - the organization is much too important to be boring," says author Ian Williams. Currently president of the UN Correspondents Association, he has reported on the UN for The New York Observer, The Nation, New Statesman, and other publications since 1989. He says his approach to the book is "pointillist," aimed at building an overview through selective detail.

The author has little patience with UN bureaucracy, including what he calls "UNspeak," the strange multisyllabled language that creeps into most UN documents and resolutions. His best news stories, he insists, have come from employees loyal to UN ideals who have leaked data on the theory that only outside prodding can bring needed reform.

The first section of the book, which may prove the most interesting to many readers, deals with the role and powers of the UN's six main organs. We learn that the General Assembly, which controls the UN purse strings and works on treaties, does largely "unspectacular but useful" work. The Security Council, the focus of most UN action since the end of the cold war, specializes more, in the view of many diplomats, in "spectacular but useless" work. ECOSOC (the UN Economic and Social Council) is not "some ecologically sound footware," notes Williams, but the "Cinderella" of the UN that deals with development, business, feeding, and culture.

It takes about $10 billion a year, an amount equal to one-third of New York City's budget, to operate the UN and its peacekeeping missions. …