UN Office Needs $1Bln Repairs

ReutersThe European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva is in need of urgent repairs, its Russian director says.
GENEVA — The Palais des Nations is crumbling.

Built more than 70 years ago to house the United Nations' predecessor and then largely neglected, the grandiose structure has miles of leaky and rusted pipes and unsafe wiring, inefficient heating and cooling systems, and also suffers frequent floods.

Its Russian director general said the historic complex urgently needed repairs that could cost more than $1 billion.

Sergei Ordzhonikidze said costly renovations of the New York headquarters had distracted attention from the dilapidated state of the UN's European base, which hosts 9,000 meetings a year.

"The old building is beautiful, but it is not that functional," he said in an interview in his vast office, where archaic electrical installations require him to flip 12 separate switches to turn the lights on or off.

Annexes completed in 1952 and 1973 created extra room for the 4,000 staff now working in the Palais, on issues including nuclear disarmament, human rights and humanitarian aid.

But the sprawling complex — with 15 hectares of floor space set upon a 45-hectare park overlooking Lake Geneva — has never had a thorough refurbishment and falls short of modern safety and energy standards, Ordzhonikidze said.

Even his ornate workspace, used by the head of the League of Nations until that UN precursor body was dissolved in 1946, lacks air conditioning, has drafty windows and offers a view of the Palais' structural decay.

"This door leads to a balcony. If you go out on the balcony, you see that everything is rusted. It's not nice," he said from behind his desk.

UN facilities often fall into disrepair because donor governments are loathe to spend aid money on upgrading buildings at the expense of other projects, such as the distribution of life-saving food and medicine.

"Most of the big donors begrudge giving money to the UN anyway, and the last thing they want them to spend it on is more comfortable offices for the staff," said Richard Golding, PricewaterhouseCoopers' global partner for the UN system.

Golding also linked the disrepair to the way the UN keeps its financial records, noting that its books track only the funds received and spent, without weighing long-term capital assets, such as buildings or vehicles.

"They are presented with accounts every year that are just on a cash basis," he said. "They have no clear visibility of how much these buildings are worth, how much they have been depreciating and how much needs to be spent on them."

Denis Balibouse / Reuters
Some 100 kilometers of cable, 40 kilometers of pipes need to be replaced.
The UN has committed to converting to international public sector accounting standards, which would keep better tabs on assets, but that change is not expected before 2010.

Ordzhonikidze said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had indicated that he would support renovations for Geneva once the $1.9 billion New York facelift is complete. That project, managed by a unit of the Swedish construction company Skanska, is due to end in mid-2013.

"At the moment, this is a problem to have a complete renovation of the two huge centers," said Ordzhonikidze, a former Soviet diplomat. "For headquarters it is difficult to agree because they have their own plan, and they are afraid that the member states will not be able to support another capital master plan that will cost maybe more than $1 billion."

The UN system spends around $15 billion per year on its peacekeeping operations and programs run by agencies such as the World Food Program, UNICEF and World Health Organization.

Under the 2008-09 budget drafted by the UN Secretariat in New York and approved by the world body's 192 member states, Geneva received just $9 million for maintenance and repairs, despite having asked for $26 million.

This shortfall made it impossible to commission a full assessment of the Palais' renovation needs, which would cost around $1 million to carry out, Ordzhonikidze said.

It is already clear that about 100 kilometers of electric cabling and 40 kilometers of water pipes need to be replaced in the older parts of the Palais, and the library in Geneva must also be better protected from floods that have damaged tons of UN archival records, he said.

Some governments, including Spain, Switzerland, France, Slovenia and Lithuania, have refurbished individual rooms as a donation to the Palais, which attracts 100,000 visitors per year.

The director general said he hoped that UN ambassadors in Geneva would push for an overall upgrade to begin alongside the New York renovation, which was undertaken to address hazards from asbestos, lead paint, a lack of sprinklers and power failures.

"My heart bleeds for the Palais," Ordzhonikidze said. "This is a historical heritage that the United Nations is happy to have. There is no comparison anywhere."