WASHINGTON - The United Nations has provoked an America-versus-the-world standoff pitting Ambassador John Bolton against the remaining 190 U.N. member states over America's effort to impose fiscal restraint on the $1.9 billion renovation of the world body's headquarters.
According to observers at the United Nations and documents made available to The New York Sun, the United Nations' Fifth Committee, the world body's budgetary arm, is pushing to appropriate an additional $100.5 million for design work on the much criticized refurbishment project.
Detractors in the city, state, and federal governments allege that the project - a complete renovation of the U.N.'s Turtle Bay headquarters, initially projected to cost $1.2 billion before its estimated price tag soared to $1.9 billion in November - is exorbitant and lacks transparency and accountability, especially in light of recent U.N. scandals, particularly the oil-for-food fiasco.
The $100.5 million request for "design and preconstruction phases" of the Capital Master Plan, as the U.N. calls the project, comes on top of $33.1 million already spent and $51.3 million already appropriated for preconstruction work between 2001 and 2005, according to a November U.N. document.
It also comes before any signal that the United Nations has officially decided on one of the four strategies for refurbishment proposed in November by Secretary-General Annan.
Last year, its plans to house workers displaced by the renovation in a 35-story "swing space" tower built atop a neighboring city park were stymied by the New York State Legislature. Since then, the world body has been scrambling for other renovation options - including the possibility of renting hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space, or erecting a "swing space" building atop the North Lawn, a private park on the U.N.'s campus.
In November, Mr. Annan recommended that the world body renovate the Secretariat and other buildings in phases, renting a small amount of office space and perhaps erecting a temporary structure on the North Lawn to house displaced employees in an effort to reduce inconvenience and cost.
As first reported by the "Eye on the U.N." web log, the Fifth Committee's push to appropriate $100.5 million for design work suggests an approval of "Strategy IV," or the renovation proposal advocated by Mr. Annan, according to a U.N. document released in December that cites the $100.5 million figure as part of "Strategy IV" expenditures.
Yet the idea of appropriating another $100.5 million for design work for a strategy that the U.N. has not formally vetted and approved has met with resistance from America's Mission to the U.N., which, according to the Swiss representative to the Fifth Committee, Anja Zobrist Rentenaar, has been the lone holdout against approving the sum in closed-door committee negotiations.
America, Ms. Zobrist and other observers said, has requested that any appropriation for design work be capped at $23 million. America shoulders 22% of the U.N.'s operating costs, and has already offered loans of $1.2 billion, at increasingly favorable rates, for the renovation - loans the U.N. has so far declined to accept.
A spokesman for the U.S. Mission, Richard Grenell, told the Sun yesterday that while America viewed $23 million as an acceptable appropriation for design work, any in excess of that amount would be "design-plus."
"When the entire U.N. hasn't approved a specific plan" for renovation, Mr. Grenell said, "'design' can become a slippery slope." The U.S. Mission is concerned that appropriating $100.5 million for "design" at this early stage would allow the U.N. to begin committing to construction contracts before they had been approved, and without oversight.
According to Ms. Zobrist, the Fifth Committee traditionally works by consensus, and avoids making funding decisions without the approval of all 191 member states. The American opposition has led the chairman of the Fifth Committee, John Ashe, of Antigua and Barbuda, to take over the budget negotiations from the Fifth Committee coordinator responsible for the Capital Master Plan, Najib Elji, of Syria.
In a proposal made yesterday afternoon and obtained by the Sun, Mr. Ashe's overture to America was to recommend appropriating only $23 million for the design work - but also to allow Mr. Annan to spend $77 million at his discretion on various pre-construction projects.
Mr. Ashe's proposal also urges Mr. Annan to consider erecting a new permanent U.N. building on the North Lawn, and to "explore the possibility of private donor funding for the Capital Master Plan."
As of late yesterday, Ms. Zobrist said the Fifth Committee had not reached consensus and would return to the issue today. The U.S. Mission, too, deferred a decision on the proposal. Yesterday afternoon, Ms. Zobrist added, Mr. Annan, Mr. Bolton, and the U.N. official overseeing the Capital Master Plan, undersecretary general for management Christopher Burnham, met to discuss the matter.
Mr. Burnham could not be reached yesterday for comment.
Amid the negotiations in Turtle Bay, critics on Capitol Hill called the suggested $100.5 appropriation for design work "outrageous" in light of the U.N.'s failures to adopt reforms required by Congress.
"This should not even be an issue of discussion," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican of Florida who has been one of the renovation project's most vocal critics. "The focus should be on the implementation of strict budgeting reforms with accompanying oversight and accountability measures." Ms. Ros-Lehtinen sits on the House International Relations Committee, which has sought to tether continued American funding of the U.N. to genuine reform of the world body.