Relo­ca­ting UN Head­quar­ters out of the United States

UN-Hallle der Generalversammlung. Wann erfolgt der Umzug weg aus den USA?

By ALFRED DE ZAYAS | The world has funda­men­tally changed since 1945.  The power equa­tion that was valid in the wake of World War II has shifted, giving way to an emer­ging multi­polar world order reflec­ting the growing importance of the rapidly “deve­lo­ping” countries.

New geopo­li­tical grou­pings like BRICS[1] – initi­ally compri­sing Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – chall­enge the hegemony of the  G7 bloc of leading advanced econo­mies.  Nine­teen count­ries have expressed inte­rest in joining BRICS[2], inclu­ding Algeria, Argen­tina, Egypt, Mexico, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates[3].  Among deve­lo­p­ments, a BRICS currency is underway, which will acce­le­rate de-dolla­riza­tion of inter­na­tional trade[4].

As the new “Global Majo­rity” becomes aware of its economic and poli­tical power, a new modus vivendi with the “coll­ec­tive West” must be crafted.  The United Nations is an appro­priate forum to help shape this struc­ture of peaceful coexis­tence based on the values of the UN Charter and the Universal Decla­ra­tion of Human Rights.

Should UN head­quar­ters move from New York?

Gradu­ally one hears voices posing the ques­tion whether UN head­quar­ters should remain in New York, or perhaps, whether the time has come to consider other possible venues.  Most UN offices are still in New York, inclu­ding DESA, OCT, UNDEF, UNDT, UNODA, UNICEF, and, of course, the UN Secu­rity Council, General Assembly, and the Secre­tary General himself.

Zhe UNO-City in Vienna

Of course, there are also two UN Euro­pean Offices head­quar­tered in Geneva and Vienna. Switz­er­land curr­ently hosts subsi­diary organs and asso­ciated agen­cies, inclu­ding the OHCHR, UNHCR, UNCTAD, ILO, ITU, WHO, WIPO and WTO, while Austria hosts IAEA, UNODC, UNIDO and IAEA. In Paris France, we have UNESCO, in Mont­real, Canada ICAO.  In Latin America the UN estab­lished a regional office in Sant­iago de Chile.  In Africa Kenya hosts the United Nations Envi­ron­mental Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi.  This evidences that the UN remains over­whel­mingly US- and Europe-centric, a fact that also impacts on its poli­cies and independence.

More and more one becomes aware that many count­ries resent the manner in which the United States Govern­ment performs its obli­ga­tions as host of the Orga­niza­tion. In 2020 the General Assembly Sixth Committee had to deal with complaints against the US for non-compli­ance with the Head­quar­ters Agree­ment[5].  In a 2021 joint letter, perma­nent repre­sen­ta­tives of six count­ries protested Washington’s ongoing viola­tion of the Agree­ment, deman­ding that the case be referred to a tribunal for sett­le­ment[6].

Accu­mu­lated viola­tions of the head­quar­ters agree­ment by the United States Govern­ment and the continued tensions resul­ting from the US efforts to assert its hegemony over the rest of the world, have given momentum to those who envi­sage relo­ca­ting UN head­quar­ters to neutral ground.  Over the past 77 years the United States has violated not only the head­quar­ters agree­ment but also the Vienna Conven­tion on Diplo­matic Rela­tions (1991) and the Vienna Conven­tion on the Repre­sen­ta­tion of States in their Rela­tions with Inter­na­tional Orga­niza­tions of a Universal Character, making it diffi­cult for the UN to pursue its work without logi­stical problems resul­ting from arbi­trary poli­cies dictated by Washington.

Relo­ca­tion has become an issue also in the light of state­ments by members of the United States Congress who are unab­as­hedly hostile to the United Nations and its goals. Accor­dingly, some country dele­ga­tions feel that a change of venue could enable the Orga­niza­tion to func­tion more effi­ci­ently in the future. Many dele­ga­tions object to the diffi­cul­ties in obtai­ning visas to enter the United States[7].  I remember when Yasser Arafat was denied an entry visa to the US in November 1988[8] and the General Assembly actually moved to Geneva, where Arafat was received with a stan­ding ovation as he walked the aisle to the podium on 13 December 1988[9].  As a young staffer in the UN Centre for Human Rights under or then Director Jan Martenson I witnessed the event and discussed it with my colle­agues in the Secre­ta­riat. The current problems encoun­tered by Sergei Lavrov, his Dele­ga­tion and the accom­panying press[10] are not new.  Cuban, Iranian, Nica­ra­guan, Syrian, Vene­zuelan diplo­mats have all endured the discri­mi­na­tory “red tape” and outright denial of visa ordered by Washington.

These matters have been signalled without any noti­ceable impro­ve­ment.  Accor­dingly, it would be helpful if members of the Secu­rity Council would voice the relo­ca­tion proposal, which should be followed-up by a thorough discus­sion in the General Assembly and a reso­lu­tion estab­li­shing a commis­sion to look into the pros and cons.

Lavrov’s Secu­rity Council state­ments of 25 April

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov chaired the Secu­rity Council meeting of 25 April and took the oppor­tu­nity to hint at the idea of relo­ca­ting UN head­quar­ters.  He also addressed a number of grie­vances:  “In a despe­rate attempt to assert its domi­nance by punis­hing the diso­be­dient, the US has moved to destroy globa­liza­tion, which for many years it extolled as the grea­test good of all mankind.”   Lavrov objected to the prac­tice by the US and its allies to black­list anyone who diss­ents and to tell the rest of the world, “those who are not with us are against us.”  He continued, stres­sing that the “Western mino­rity” has no right to speak for the entire world, and that its so-called “rules-based order” amounts to rejec­tion of the sove­reign equa­lity of states as stipu­lated in the UN Charter.  He poked fun at EU commis­sioner Josep Borrell’s amusing state­ment about the Euro­pean “garden” and the “jungle” outside it.

At the same meeting in the Secu­rity Council Lavrov complained that the West has made a “brazen attempt to subju­gate” the UN by taking over its secre­ta­riats and other inter­na­tional insti­tu­tions. He claimed that Washington and its allies had aban­doned diplo­macy and demanded a batt­le­field show­down within the halls of the UN, created to prevent the horrors of war. Lavrov argued that genuine multi­la­te­ra­lism “requires the UN to adapt to objec­tive trends” of emer­ging multi­po­la­rity in inter­na­tional rela­tions. Accor­dingly, the Secu­rity Council should be reformed to increase the repre­sen­ta­tion of Africa, Asia and Latin America, as the current “exor­bi­tant over­re­pre­sen­ta­tion” of the West “under­mines the prin­ciple of multi­la­te­ra­lism.”[11]  As was to be expected, Western diplo­mats rejected Lavrov’s state­ments.[12]

UN-US head­quar­ters agreement

The United Nations- US head­quar­ters agree­ment of 26 June 1947[13]   envi­sages in Article IX the possi­bi­lity of relo­ca­ting UN head­quar­ters to another venue. Section 23 stipu­lates “The seat of the United Nations shall not be removed from the head­quar­ters district unless the United Nations should so decide.” Section 24  stipu­lates “This agree­ment shall cease to be in force if the seat of the United Nations is removed from the terri­tory of the United States, except for such provi­sions as may be appli­cable in connec­tion with the orderly termi­na­tion of the opera­tions of the United Nations at its seat in the United States and the dispo­si­tion of its property therein.”

How New York became the UN headquarters 

Let us not forget that the idea of conti­nuing the work of the League of Nations very much reflected the thin­king of Presi­dent Franklin Delano Roose­velt. Of course, the new Orga­niza­tion should reflect the 1945 balance of power and move from the old to the new world.  Moreover, we recall that the UN Charter was crafted at a meeting in San Fran­cisco in April-June 1945[14].  Thus, it is not surpri­sing that follo­wing the end of the Second World War and the emer­gence of the United States as the undis­puted hegemon, the United Nations should have its seat in the US.  Many cities competed for the honour of hosting the UN.

Since 1945 the UN operated out of tempo­rary head­quar­ters in Lake Success, New York[15], but the Orga­niza­tion also met at the old League of Nations seat in Geneva and at the Palais Chaillot in Paris, where the General Assembly adopted the Geno­cide Conven­tion on 9 December 1948 and the Universal Decla­ra­tion of Human Rights on 10 December 1948.

The UN Secre­ta­riat buil­ding in Manhattan Island was erected 1946–51 on the shore of the East River in New York, a skyscraper desi­gned in the so-called “inter­na­tional style” on land given to the United Nations by John D. Rocke­feller, who had acquired the property for $8.5 million.  UN staff started moving in in August 1950. The Buil­ding is 154 m tall with 39 above-ground floors. While the UN buil­ding is located within the US, the site is under UN juris­dic­tion. As the UN expanded, it acquired many more buil­dings in the New York area.

By virtue of the UN-US Head­quar­ters Agree­ment (11 UNTS 11), the prin­cipal head­quar­ters of the UN was estab­lished in New York (A/RES/25(1)).  The agree­ment is open-ended and maybe modi­fied or aban­doned as neces­sary.  In Reso­lu­tion A/RES/22(I)B the General Assembly approved the Conven­tion on the Privi­leges and Immu­ni­ties of the United Nations . General assembly Reso­lu­tion 99(1) autho­rized the Secre­tary-General to conclude a head­quar­ters agree­ment with the US based on a draft agree­ment contained within Reso­lu­tion A/67 and to make arran­ge­ments for a provi­sional agree­ment related to the privi­leges, immu­ni­ties, and faci­li­ties of the UN head­quar­ters. [16]

Obsta­cles to Relocation

Relo­ca­ting to exis­ting UN offices in Geneva or Vienna would be easier, since the infra­struc­ture is already there.  But it would still take at least five years and cost an enormous amount of money.  Alas, the UN budget is always stret­ched to the limit. The down­side of such a move is that it would remain Euro-centric and not take into account the aspi­ra­tions of the “Global Majo­rity” to have the United Nations serve all of humanity.

As we all know, the Biden admi­nis­tra­tion is hostile to the UN, but still wants to use it as a tool of its geopo­li­tical agenda.  But back in 2017 during the Donald Trump admi­nis­tra­tion some Repu­blican lawma­kers already proposed a bill in the House of Repre­sen­ta­tives to with­draw US member­ship from the UN and ask the UN to vacate the premises, although the Orga­niza­tion actually contri­butes over 3.3 billion dollars a year to New York City reve­nues and also provides lucra­tive jobs to thou­sands of American citizens.

There is no “protocol” as such for moving UN head­quar­ters.  First there must be a discus­sion in the General Assembly and the adop­tion of several reports that would include “impact assess­ments”.  Main thing is to start the debate and rely on the media to discuss the main reasons for such a move.  There are legi­ti­mate grie­vances that the US has syste­ma­ti­cally ignored.  Maybe the BRICS count­ries should join forces in formu­la­ting the neces­sary proposals.

Where could a new head­quar­ters be based?

In order to reflect the growing importance of the deve­lo­ping world, there are many count­ries that could conceiv­ably host the United Nations head­quar­ters.  One could think of Mexico, and the cities of Puebla and Guad­a­la­jara, which have advanced infra­struc­ture.  Surely Brazil — either Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo.  South Africa would be a credible candi­date, and the cities of Cape Town or Durban would be worthy venues.  India, the most popu­lous country in the world, would benefit from UN presence — Delhi and Banga­lore have much inter­na­tional experience.


[16] A/371 contains the report of the Secre­tary-General regar­ding the US-UN Head­quar­ters agree­ment inclu­ding comm­ents on the changes made to the original draft agreement.
A/427 contains the report of the Sixth (or Legal) Committee to the General Assembly of the study of the agree­ment by the sub-committee on Privi­leges and Immunities.
A/RES/169(II) approved the agree­ment between the UN and the US regar­ding the UN Head­quar­ters in New York.

Alfred de Zayas is a law professor at the Geneva School of Diplo­macy and served as a UN Inde­pen­dent Expert on Inter­na­tional Order 2012–18. He is the author of ten books inclu­ding “Buil­ding a Just World Order” Clarity Press, 2021. 

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