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  U.N. Meeting Is Warned About Perils Of Y2K Bug

By John M. Goshko
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 12, 1998; Page A6

UNITED NATIONS, Dec. 11—Delegates from more than 120 countries met here today to discuss the "Year 2000 Bug" and were warned repeatedly that not all of the anticipated computer problems will be fixed in time to prevent substantial economic and humanitarian damage in many parts of the world.

"It will not be possible for us to stop the clock at midnight on Dec. 31, 1999," said Ahmad Kamal, Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations and chairman of the U.N. committee coordinating work on the problem. "We all know we are in a race against time and must do all we can to contain the damage."

The problem, known as Y2K or "the millennium bug," stems from the use in many computers of a two-digit dating system that assumes the first two digits of the year are "19." On Jan. 1, 2000, these computers could read "00" as 1900 instead of 2000 and shut down or malfunction.

The conference here was the first attempt to take a global look at the problem. It was organized after Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.), who chairs a House committee on Y2K, wrote to Secretary General Kofi Annan. The secretary general designated Kamal to be the point man for the undertaking in collaboration with John A. Koskinen, chairman of the U.S. presidential council on Y2K.

Most of today's sessions were held behind closed doors in an effort to encourage delegates to speak frankly without fear of causing concern in their home countries. The conference was supposed to look at possible responses in national, international and regional terms and discuss how these approaches might be integrated.

Of particular concern, delegates said, were the potential disruptive impact on telecommunications and nuclear and hydroelectric power and the ripple effects these might have on the world's day-to-day activities, including trade, food production and distribution, and medical care.

The delegates said no one really knows, from country to country and region to region, how much progress can be made in fixing the Y2K problem in the 386 days remaining until 2000. As Joseph Connor, U.N. undersecretary general for management, said, "All we know for sure is the timing. The scope is simply daunting."

"We will have a big problem in the United States," Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), chairman of a Senate special committee on Y2K, said in an interview. "How big we won't know for about another eight months since much depends on what we do in that time. But it will not be the end of Western civilization as we know it in the United States."

The effects in other countries will vary, Bennett added, with those industrial nations that have funds, expertise and a sense of urgency "surviving better than others -- more or less in the same terms as we should experience in this country." But he warned, "Some [developing] countries with inadequate resources are likely to drop off the radar screen, perhaps not to be heard from again."

That, Bennett said, will have severe consequences not only for the internal affairs of these countries and their people but also will affect the United States and other industrial nations.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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