United Nations Headquarters

views updated



When the UN came into being on 24 October 1945, it had no home. On 11 December 1945, the US Congress unanimously invited the UN to make its headquarters in the United States. In February 1946, the General Assembly, meeting for its first session in London, voted for the general vicinity of Fairfield and Westchester counties, near New York City, but sites near Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco also were considered during 1946. Then came the dramatic offer by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to donate $8.5 million toward the purchase of properties along the East River in midtown Manhattan. The City of New York rounded out the zone and granted rights along the river frontage. By November 1947, the General Assembly approved the architectural plans, and nine months later, the UN concluded a $65 million interest-free loan agreement with the US government. The director of planning for UN headquarters was Wallace K. Harrison of the United States. The international board of design consultants included G. A. Soilleux, Australia; Gaston Brunfaut, Belgium; Oscar Niemeyer, Brazil; Ernest Cormier, Canada; Ssu-ch'eng Liang, China; Charles le Corbusier, Switzerland; Sven Markelius, Sweden; Nikolai D. Bassow, USSR; Howard Robertson, United Kingdom; and Julio Vilamajo, Uruguay.

The first structure to be completed, in the spring of 1951, was the 39-story marble and glass Secretariat building. In 1952, the conference building (with the three council halls and a number of conference rooms) and the General Assembly building were ready.

Thus, it was five or six years before the UN was permanently housed. In the interim, the Secretariat was established provisionally at Hunter College in the Bronx, New York, and in August 1946, the UN moved to the Sperry Gyroscope plant at Lake Success, Long Island. Several General Assembly sessions took place in the New York City Building at Flushing Meadow, and in 1948 and 1951, the body met at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris.

A library building at the headquarters site, erected and equipped through a $6.6 million donation by the Ford Foundation, was dedicated in 1961 to the memory of former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.

Various furnishings and works of art for the conference and General Assembly buildings and the library have been donated by member governments. Adjoining the public lobby in the General Assembly building is the Meditation Room, dedicated to those who have given their lives in service to the UN. It includes a stained glass window by Marc Chagall on the theme of "Peace and Man." The public gardens north of the General Assembly building contain sculpture and plantings donated by governments and individuals.

The United Nations headquarters was designed to serve four major groups: delegations, who now represent 191 member states and who send more than 3,000 persons to New York each year for the annual sessions of the General Assembly; the Secretariat, numbering nearly 15,000 throughout the world; visitors, who average 1,500 a day; and journalists, of whom more than 450 are permanently accredited while twice that number are present during major meetings.

For a small fee, visitors may join one of the Secretariat's tours of the headquarters buildings, conducted daily in 20 languages by some 50 guides from around 30 countries.


Because of the increase in the number of member states, the seating capacity of the conference rooms and the General Assembly Hall has been enlarged. A major expansion of office and meeting facilities at UN headquarters was undertaken in the 1980s.

About 61,000 men and women from some 170 countries work for the UN and its related organs and agenciesabout one-third of them at UN headquarters and the other two-thirds at offices and centers around the globe. (See also the chapter on the Secretariat.)

Conference Services

UN headquarters, together with the organization's offices in Geneva and Vienna, provide the interpreters, translators, writers, editors, and conference personnel required for the many UN meetings throughout the world, as well as for other meetings held under UN auspices.

Telecommunications System

The UN has its own telecommunications system. UN headquarters is linked by radio with the offices in Geneva and Vienna, which, in turn, provide liaison with UN organs and offices in different parts of the world.

Computer System

As part of the fundamental modernization and reorganization of the United Nations, the organization's bank of IBM mainframes was replaced in stages by an Integrated Management Information System (IMIS). The first phase of the replacement, completed in early 1994, implemented a personnel system covering recruiting, hiring, promotions, and moving. Four hundred users at the headquarters were connected to Unix servers with personal computers using Windows soft ware. Eventually all administrative applications were transferred to four Unix systems organized in clientserver architecture. Other users, such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the International Labor Organization (ILO), had progressively adapted the soft ware to their special requirements. In late 1998, a report of independent experts, initiated at the General Assembly's request, favorably evaluated IMIS from both the technical and cost perspectives. Their recommendations, as well as those of the General Assembly and the Board of Auditors, were subsequently addressed.

UN Postal Administration

UN stamps are issued under separate agreements with the postal authorities of the United States, Switzerland, and Austria and are valid for postage only on mail deposited at UN headquarters in New York and at the UN offices in Geneva and Vienna. UN stamps may be obtained by mail, over the counter, or automatically through the Customer Deposit Service in New York, Geneva, or Vienna. Only revenue from the sale of stamps for philatelic purposes is retained by the UN. In addition to producing revenue, UN stamp designs publicize the work of the organization and its related agencies.



The Dag Hammarskjöld Library contains approximately 400,000 books, 14,500 maps, over 80,000 periodicals and newspapers, and several hundred thousand documents and microfiches. The collection includes not only UN materials but also League of Nations records in its Woodrow Wilson Reading Room, as well as a general reference library on subjects related to the work of the UN. The library is for use by delegations, permanent missions, and the Secretariat and by scholars engaged in advanced research.


The United Nations Archives, located at 345 Park Avenue South in New York, dates from the establishment of the United Nations. Its 35 linear feet of holdings include both inactive administrative records created by Secretariat offices, as well as archival records that constitute the organization's institutional memory. Each year, approximately 50 researchers cull its archives for information about the UN's predecessors, the Secretary-General's "good offices" role, and the organization's mediating and peacekeeping activities.

The earliest records emanate from predecessor organizations, including the International Penal and Penitentiary Commission (18931951); United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (194348), which assisted liberated areas devastated by World War II; United Nations War Crimes Commission (194349) whose 17 Allied members together developed procedures for apprehending and punishing war criminals; and the United Nations Conference on International Organization (1945), at which the United Nations was chartered.

From its very beginning, a number of regional conflicts required that the new organization assume the role of peacekeeper. Consequently, the UN Archives maintains records associated with a wide variety of peacekeeping missions, ranging from the UN Special Committee on Palestine (1947), to the organization's electoral mission in Cambodia. Issues arising from colonialism also required early UN involvement. Archival holdings document the establishment of trusteeships for supervising elections and the transition to independence. The organization's technical assistance function in international social and economic development is, likewise, reflected among the archives' records.

Records are generally open for research at the end of 20 years. Strictly confidential records, or those with special restrictions (such as the War Crimes Commission records), require express authorization for access. Those wishing to research UN Archives records should submit the Archives Researcher Application form to the Archives and Records Centre, 304 East 45th Street, Ground Floor, New York, New York 10017. Fax: (212) 963-4414. Telephone: (212) 963-8683; (212) 963-8612. E-mail: [email protected].

Documents Services

UN headquarters houses one of the world's largest photocopying and printing plants. Most UN documents are produced in photocopy form for the use of members and the Secretariat. Some documents, as well as many reports and studies, are issued as UN publications for sale to the public. They are available in the bookshop at UN headquarters and from distributors worldwide.

In the United States and Canada, Bernan Associates (formerly UNIPUB) distributes UN publications and publishes scholarly books by the United Nations University Press. It also distributes the publications of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), World Trade Organization (WTO), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Bernan is located in Lanham, Maryland, and can be reached from the United States at (800) 274-4888 or via email at [email protected]. The Bernan Associates web site can also be accessed at www.bernan.com. Other UN publications are available from the United Nations Publications Sales Section at UN Headquarters, (212) 963-8302 or (800) 253-9646 (for North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia and the Pacific); and from the Publications des Nations Unies (in Geneva), (41 22) 917 2600 or (41 22) 917 2614 (for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East). The UN Publications office also has a web site at http://www.un.org/Pubs/sales.htm, where the searchable catalog of UN publications may be accessed and orders placed.


At its first session, in 1946, the General Assembly decided to create a special Department of Public Information (DPI) in the Secretariat. Recognizing that the UN's aims cannot be achieved unless the world is fully informed of its objectives and activities, the General Assembly directed that DPI should work to promote the fullest possible informed understanding of UN affairs. Accordingly, the UN provides a steady stream of information on its activities, covering virtually all mediapress, publications, radio, television, films, photographs, and exhibits.

Press, Publications, and Photographic Services

DPI provides information to news correspondents and facilitates their access to meetings, documents, and other news sources. In any given year, several thousand press releases are issued at UN headquarters, including accounts of meetings, texts of speeches, announcements of special programs, and background or reference papers. DPI holds daily briefings and helps to arrange press conferences for members of delegations and senior members of the Secretariat and the specialized agencies.

Booklets, pamphlets, and leaflets covering the work of the UN are published in many languages. The UN Chronicle, issued quarterly in the six official languages of the UN, reports on UN activities. The Chronicle now has its own web site at www.un.org/Pubs/chronicle, which includes information on the contents of individual issues as well as links to selected articles and cover images from the magazine. DPI also issues a Yearbook of the United Nations.

To illustrate UN activities in the field, photo missions are periodically undertaken throughout the world. The photographs obtained, together with extensive coverage of events at UN headquarters and other principal conference centers, are widely used by newspapers, periodicals, book publishers, and government information agencies. Posters and photo display sets are prepared for exhibition at UN headquarters and for worldwide distribution.

DPI press releases, background information releases, and other public information documents are available on the Internet by accessing http://www.un.org/news/. United Nations documents (major reports, and resolutions of the General Assembly, Security Council, and ECOSOC) can be accessed by Internet users. In the United States, many large libraries provide a free window onto the Internet, allowing access to some of the UN documents.

Radio, TV, and Film Services

A major responsibility of DPI is to assist the accredited correspondents of national and commercial broadcasting organizations in their coverage of the UN's work. In radio, correspondents may use studios and recording equipment at UN headquarters, and New York is linked with distant capitals by shortwave or radio-telephone. Film and television correspondents may receive visual coverage of principal meetings of the Security Council and the General Assembly, as well as of press conferences and briefings. Satellite transmissions carry this material around the world.

DPI broadcasts meetings of principal UN organs by shortwave and produces its own radio programs in the six official UN languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish), reaching listeners in more than 100 countries. UN films and programs are produced not only for television but also for groups in schools, universities, and nongovernmental organizations.

Public Inquiries Unit

The Public Inquiries Unit handles individual inquiries from researchers and the general public seeking specific information about the United Nations and its subsidiary organizations. The unit can refer callers to the appropriate UN department or organization, and send by mail UN documents such as reports by the Secretary-General to the General Assembly or Security Council.

UN Information Centers

The network of United Nations Information Centers (UNICs), Services (UNISs) and Offices (UNOs) links Headquarters with the people of the world. Located in 77 countries, these branch offices of the United Nations Department of Public Information help local communities obtain up-to-date information on the United Nations and its activities. As of May 2006, 45 UNICs had created their own web sites, in local languages. The list of UNIC web sites follows: Algiers, Algeria (French) www.unic.org.dz; Ankara, Turkey (English/Turkish) www.un.org.tr/unic.html; Antananarivo, Madagascar (French/Malagasy) www.onu.dts.mg; Baku, Azerbaijan (English) www.un-az.org/dpi; Bangkok, Thailand (English) www.unescap.org/unis; Beirut, Lebanon (English/Arabic) www.escwa.org.lb; Bogota, Colombia (Spanish) www.onucolombia.org; Bucharest, Romania (Romanian) www.onuinfo.ro; Buenos Aires, Argentina (Spanish) www.unic.org.ar; Cairo, Egypt (English) www.unic-eg.org; Dakar, Senegal (French) www.cinudakar.org; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (English/Kiswahili) www.unic.undp.org; Dhaka, Bangladesh (English/Bangla) www.unicdhaka.org; Geneva, Switzerland (English/French) www.unog.ch/unis/unis1.htm; Harare, Zimbabwe (English) www.samara.co.zw/unic; Islamabad, Pakistan (English/Urdu) www.un.org.pk/unic/; Kiev, Ukraine (English/Ukrainian) www.un.kiev.ua; La Paz, Bolivia (Spanish) www.nu.org.bo/cinu/; Lagos, Nigeria (English) www.unicnig.org; Lima, Peru (Spanish) www.uniclima.org.pe/; Manama, Bahrain (English) www.undp.org.bh/unic/; Mexico City, Mexico (Spanish) www.cinu.org.mx; Minsk, Belarus (Russian) www.un.minsk.by/dpi/dpi_r.html; Moscow, Russian Federation (Russian) www.unic.ru; New Delhi, India (English) www.unic.org.in; Nairobi, Kenya (English/Kiswahili) www.unicnairobi.org; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (French) www.cinu-burkina.org; Panama City, Panama (Spanish) www.cinup.org; Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago (English) www.unicpos.org.tt; Prague, Czech Republic (Czech) www.unicprague.cz; Pretoria, South Africa (English) www.un.org.za/unzahp; Rabat, Morocco (French) www.cinu.org.ma; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Portuguese) www.unicrio.org.br; Sydney, Australia (English) www.un.org.au; Tashkent, Uzbekistan (English/Uzbek) www.undp.uz; Tehran, Iran (English/Farsi) www.unic-ir.org; Tokyo, Japan (Japanese) www.unic.or.jp; Tripoli, Libya (English) www.unic-libya.org/; Tunis, Tunisia (French) www.unic-tunis.intl.tn; Vienna, Austria (English/German/Hungarian/Slovenian) www.unis.unvienna.org; Warsaw, Poland (English/Polish) www.unic.un.org.pl; Washington, D.C., United States of America (English) www.unicwash.org; Windhoek, Namibia (English) www.un.na/unic.htm; Yaounde, Cameroon (English) www.un.cm/cinu; and Yerevan, Armenia (English/Armenian) www.undpi.am. These sites post calendars of events sponsored by the Centers along with information on major UN activities, such as the General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem and the establishment of the International Criminal Court. The centers maintain up-to-date reference libraries of UN publications and documentation and answer public inquiries. DPI material is translated into local languages by the centers, which work closely with local media, information agencies, educational authorities, and nongovernmental organizations in their area. The centers also inform UN headquarters about local UN activities, which, in turn, are publicized by DPI. In 1996, the UN began integrating the functions of its information centers into the office of the UN representative/resident coordinator in the respective host country.


The charter provides that in all territory of its member states, the UN shall hold whatever legal capacity, privileges, and immunities are necessary for the fulfillment of its purposes and that representatives of member states and officials of the UN shall have a status allowing them independent exercise of their functions. On 13 February 1946, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. As of May 2006, 191 countries, including the United States, had acceded to this convention. UN staffon official business can travel on a laissez-passer issued by the UN.

Countries that have acceded to the convention exempt the salaries of UN officials from taxation, except for the United States and several other countries, where special reservations apply. These salaries, however, are subject to a "staffassessment," an internal UN taxation. The UN itself is exempt from all direct taxes, customs duties, and export and import restrictions on articles for official use.

Virtually all member states have established permanent missions to the UN in New York. Their personnel enjoy privileges and immunities similar to those of diplomatic missions.


A special headquarters agreement, signed by Secretary-General Trygve Lie and US secretary of state George C. Marshall at Lake Success on 26 June 1947, has been in force since 21 November 1947. It defines the 18 acres of land in New York City located between 42nd and 48th Streets and First Avenue and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive as the Headquarters District of the United Nations. Subsequently, by supplemental agreements between the UN and the United States, additional office space located in buildings in the vicinity has been included in the Headquarters District. The Headquarters District is "under the control and authority of the United Nations as provided in this agreement." It is the seat of the UN, and the agreement stipulates that the district "shall be inviolable." Federal, state, and local personnel on official duty may enter it only with the consent of the Secretary-General. The UN may make regulations for the area. US federal, state, and local law, insofar as it is inconsistent with UN regulations, does not apply here; otherwise, the US courts would have jurisdiction over actions and transactions taking place in the Headquarters District. The UN may expel persons from the district for violations of regulations. In such cases, and generally for the preservation of law and order, US authorities have to provide a sufficient number of police if requested by the Secretary-General. "No form of racial or religious discrimination shall be permitted within the Headquarters District." Other detailed provisions in the agreement between the UN and the US deal with the important matter of the accessibility of the seat of the UN to non-US citizens.


The General Assembly adopted an official seal and emblem for the organization. The UN emblem depicts in silver against a light blue background a map of the earth, projected from the North Pole, and encircled by two symmetrical olive branches. It is a slight modification of a design selected by the US Office of Strategic Services for buttons used at the San Francisco Conference in 1945. The particular shade of blue is now officially called United Nations blue. The emblem is used only for UN publications and conferences and other officially approved purposes.

The first UN flag was used in Greece in 1947 in a region where there was fighting. The flag has the UN emblem in white against a background of United Nations blue.

The flag may be displayed not only by the UN and the specialized agencies and by governments but also by "organizations and individuals to demonstrate support of the United Nations and to further its principles and purposes." It is considered "especially appropriate" to display the UN flag on national and official holidays; on UN Day, 24 October; and at official events in honor of the UN or related to the UN.

About this article

United Nations Headquarters

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


United Nations Headquarters