In the largest gathering of world leaders in history, kings, presidents and premiers marked the 50th anniversary of the United Nations on Sunday by demanding the organization change so it can fulfill the dreams of its founders.
But differences that long have divided the world's only truly global organization surfaced as 200 heads of state, prime ministers, foreign ministers and representatives of international groups began three days of speeches.President Clinton, the first world leader to speak, listed his agenda as combating international terrorism, organized crime, drug smuggling and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
Cuban President Fidel Castro, who shed his trademark fatigues for a dark gray business suit, talked of the gap between rich and poor and domination of the United Nations by powerful countries.
"How long shall we wait for the democratization of the United Nations?" Castro asked, to enthusiastic applause, mostly from leaders of developing nations.
He said the "abuse of authority" wielded by the United States and the four other permanent Security Council members - France, Britain, Russia and China - has created "a new colonialism within the very United Nations." The Security Council is the only U.N. body that can pass resolutions binding on all members.
Zambian President Frederick Chiluba said the Security Council should not serve as a sanctuary where the five permanent members become "high priests to the rest of the globe."
Even permanent members were not entirely pleased. Russian President Boris Yeltsin complained that the Security Council and his own country have been bypassed in recent U.S.-led initiatives to end the war in Bosnia.
The U.N. charter ratified 50 years ago Tuesday espoused ideals of fostering peace and security throughout the world and economic progress for all peoples.
The anniversary is taking place as the United Nations faces its greatest financial crisis, brought on by demands for peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Angola and elsewhere, as well as the failure of member states to pay their dues.
Members owe the United Nations $3 billion. The biggest debtor is the United States, $1.3 billion in arrears.
Clinton, who spoke nine minutes beyond the five-minute limit allotted each speaker, said he was determined to meet the United States' financial obligations to the United Nations.
But he added: "The U.N. must be able to show that the money received supports saving and enriching people's lives, not bureaucratic overhead."
General Assembly President Diago Freitas do Amaral of Portugal, who opened the session, urged reform, but cautioned, "We must not allow this organization to die at the hands of its critics."
In welcoming remarks, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said the United Nations had a vital role to play in such fields as human rights, international law, peacekeeping, development and the environment.
"But the United Nations cannot play this role if the present trend continues," he said. "The problems of globalization and fragmentation have caused vast responsibilities to be given to the U.N. But the U.N. has not been given the resources required to accomplish the tasks imposed."
He asked members to consider calling a special session of the General Assembly to deal with the financial crisis, an action some world leaders also promoted.
As the gathering progresses, the world leaders will also hold scores of one-on-one meetings on issues ranging from the war in Bosnia to U.S.-China relations and peace in the Middle East.
Outside the U.N. complex, city police and federal agents mounted one of New York's biggest-ever security operations, wrapping a thick defensive blanket around the dignitaries. Streets were closed, anti-sniper teams were deployed on rooftops and police boats with frogmen patrolled the nearby East River.
As the leaders spoke, thousands of protesters, speaking for a world full of causes, rallied on a plaza behind blue police barricades across First Avenue.
They included anti-Castro demonstrators who marched on Cuba's U.N. mission, Tamils who came by bus from Canada to show support for ethnic brethren in their separatist war with Sri Lanka's government and supporters of the Mohajir underclass in Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan.
Under a plastic tarpaulin, six Tibetans were in the eighth day of a "hunger strike until death" to demand U.N. help in the Tibetan struggle for independence from China.
Security concerns may have prompted one last-minute cancellation: by Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, who escaped assassination four months ago in Ethiopia, apparently by Islamic militants.
Finance also was on the minds of numerous delegations, which have used the huge gathering as an opportunity to solicit trade and investment.
Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, attended a fund-raising dinner Saturday sponsored by Arab-Americans. In his speech Sunday, Arafat called for economic aid to the Palestinians.
"Our people are yearning for peace," Arafat said. "The prophecy of good tidings has taken its first step. Help us bring it to fruition."
He said Israeli-Palestinian peace was "irreversible" and that peace in the Middle East must also include Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Castro, meanwhile, has been flooded with requests from U.S. businesses anxious to discuss future deals despite the U.S. economic embargo against his communist island nation.