Sixty-first General Assembly: Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary)

At the sixty-first session of the General Assembly, the Fifth Committee ensured that the United Nations would continue to function in the 2007-2009 biennium and finance its activities, by determining the contribution of each Member State to the Organization's regular and peacekeeping budgets. After two months of difficult negotiations, delegates decided to retain the same scale of assessments used since 2000, with Japan's contribution as the most significant change, falling from 19.4 to 16.6 per cent of the total budget, which reflects a decline in its gross national income. However, Japan remains the second largest contributor to the United Nations budget after the United States (22 per cent), followed by Germany (8.57 per cent). China's economic growth was reflected by an increase from 2.05 to 2.66 per cent, while 50 countries, including Afghanistan, Malawi and Zambia, pay the lowest assessment rate of 0.001 per cent. For the biennium 2006-2007, the regular budget totalled $ 4.1 billion and the peacekeeping budget was $5.1 billion. The Committee also made important progress on issues related to UN reform by approving the financial implications for activities, such as a comprehensive review of governance and oversight within the United Nations, its specialized agencies, funds and programmes.

UN Capital Master Plan Set to Start

Far away from the gilded Security Council Chamber and the green marble of the vast General Assembly Hall, visitors on the so-called "dirty tour" of UN Headquarters in New York see the innards of the ageing UN Secretariat buildings. Machinery that blows steam through massive pipes is attached to control panels with original analogue pressure gauges from the early 1950s. Although these buildings represented the cutting edge of architecture when they were built, they do not comply with current fire and safety codes, as well as with modern standards for security and sustainability.

In December 2006, the Fifth Committee approved the budget for the UN Capital Master Plan (CMP), paving the way for a major renovation of the UN Headquarters complex. The iconic rectangular building, which has become a landmark for people around the globe and has received over 38 million visitors so far, will be renovated, at a total cost of $1.88 billion, for the next seven years to make it safer and more energy-efficient. Constructed between 1949 and 1952, the complex was "built very well, using the best materials", and "that is why it has lasted so long", said Werner Schmidt, CMP spokesperson and "dirty tour" guide. The renovation will retain the building's structural elements, which were built with steel encased in concrete -- a method rarely used today. "Maintenance [office] did a wonderful job keeping the building in good shape", he said, explaining that most replacement parts are fabricated within the building's workshops because they are no longer manufactured. The machines and pipes were built to last 25 years, making their replacement 30 years overdue.

Since asbestos was initially used throughout the building to insulate floors, ceilings and pipes, a fire or explosion would likely cause the evacuation of several surrounding blocks, said Mr. Schmidt. Therefore, during renovation utmost care will be taken to ensure that asbestos is not released into the air. He added that in order to make the building safer in the event of a terrorist attack, which was not considered by the original architects, the columns in the building's "soft underbelly" -- the three basement floors -- would be reinforced against bomb blasts.

Huge amounts of fuel are being used to heat or cool the building. It's glass curtain façade, currently made of single-glazed, quarter-inch thick glass, will be replaced with double-pane windows, making the building 30 per cent more energy-efficient. Other environmentally-friendly options include using solar power for lighting the flags and powering the outside fountain, installing low-water usage toilets and reducing waste by composting garbage from the cafeteria. "When you have a project as large as the Capital Master Plan, sustainability should definitely be an important consideration", said Thomas Stahli of the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations. Anticipating a debate early in the negotiation, Mr. Stahli made it clear that his delegation was interested in the project's environmental sustainability, the options of which were adopted by consensus. "The project should be 'state-of-the-art' also in terms of sustainability. It is a good message, that Member States were willing to take the sustainability options without questions", he said.

A representative of the "Group of 77" developing countries and China told the UN Chronicle that procurement for the renovation should take into account the international nature of the United Nations. She pointed out that the original building was designed by an international team of architects, including renowned Brazilian and French architects Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier, respectively, and that the renovation project should continue this tradition. She particularly encouraged firms from developing countries to provide the services and materials needed.

Brian Streb, who is in charge of procurement for the CMP, said that every effort would be made to follow the General Assembly's mandate to create opportunities for developing nations and countries in transition to participate in the procurement process. One of the criteria for the selection of the company that will lead the renovation will be its ability to incorporate services and suppliers from developing countries, he said. Many of the architectural and construction firms involved in the renovation would be multinational and their staff would likely have a broad geographical representation. Much of the construction materials were likely to come from developing countries, simply because of their lower costs, Mr. Streb said; for instance, the glass for the curtain wall might come from China and the steel reinforcement from India.

Some 1,000 United Nations staff members will be relocated to rented offices near the UN Headquarters when the 39-story building is renovated ten floors at a time. A 100,000-square feet temporary structure -- some 9,300 square metres -- will be constructed on the north lawn of the Headquarters complex to house meetings and conference rooms while renovation is underway. Originally built to accommodate 700 meetings for 70 Member States, the complex currently handles over 8,000 meetings for 192 delegations and operates at full or beyond capacity twelve months a year, with virtually no down time.