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In the second half of the twentieth century, international relations experienced the rapid expansion of multilateral diplomacy. This trend brought with it a number of permanently staffed  international organizations, paramount among them the United Nations, mandated to facilitate the implementation of the goals of their Member States.

The proliferation of international organizations soon led to the realization that there were some basic facilities, privileges and immunities that these organizations needed to be able to carry out their mandate effectively.

These privileges and immunities were generally provided within the terms of the bilateral agreements negotiated between the country in which the respective United Nations organization was to be headquartered and the organization itself –

such agreements regulated the status of the organizations and their staff within the host country and came to be known as headquarters agreements or host country agreements.

In the mid-1940s, there was a debate among representatives of the 51 original U.N. member states about where the headquarters should be located. U.S. cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco were much-discussed options. A few cities in Europe were also considered. After much deliberation, Trygve Lie decided enough was enough. He made a phone call to the mayor of New York and managed to get initial financial help of $8.5 million from the Rockefeller family.

Finally , the U.N. had the site for its headquarters, by the East River in midtown Manhattan. Still, the problem of location wasn’t quite solved yet. The organization needed additional funds to furnish the interior. The member states acted individually. The Economic and Social Council Chamber is a gift from Sweden, the Trusteeship Council Chamber is a gift from Denmark, and arguably the world’s most important room, the Security Council Chamber, is a gift from Norway.

Headquarters agreements are of necessity concluded at the time when an organization first opens its premises in a particular country.The privileges and immunities of the staff of United Nations organizations are also generally provided under the agreements. Although rarely activated, United Nations headquarters agreements normally contain a mechanism for the settlement of disputes that may arise from their interpretation or application.

The privileges and immunities included in the earliest headquarters agreements were initially very limited. The Charter of the United Nations, for example, provided only very general provisions for the privileges and immunities of the United Nations and its staff.

The adoption of multilateral agreements on this issue, the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations (1946) and the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the Specialized Agencies of the United Nations (1947), emphasized the importance of ensuring that international organizations and their staff were granted adequate privileges and immunities to effectively carry out their duties.

These Conventions serve as the legal base upon which headquarters agreements are concluded and are designed to give effect to the relationship between each of these organizations and the host
country concerned.

Headquarters agreements cover a wide variety of issues concerning the organizations themselves, their Member States, Permanent Missions and their staff, as well as staff members of the organizations,officials and their families. The privileges and immunities accorded United Nations system organizations and their staff members, as well as the benefits and opportunities, including for example employment.

As each United Nations organization historically negotiates and stablishes its own separate agreement with the particular country in which it is to be headquartered, there are significant differences between these agreements.

The degree of detail in headquarters agreements can vary depending upon a number of different factors, including, for example, the date of the agreement and the flexibility of the parties involved in the negotiations. Some headquarters agreements include approximately 40-50 detailed articles that expand upon socio-economic and work/life concerns relevant to staff. Conversely, other agreements may include only 10 articles with very few details beyond the immediate legal jurisdiction of the organization in question.

Host Country Committee was created by the General Assembly in 1971 to discuss and resolve issues relating to the security of missions and the safety of their personnel, as well as issues arising from the implementation of the Headquarters Agreement between the United Nations and the United States. The Committee was also formed to answer questions regarding privileges and immunities, and the everyday functions of the United Nations community in the host city. It had proved to be an open and versatile body in which all Member States could participate and raise concerns.

In the light of these disparities, some States as well as secretariats and even non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have suggested that the headquarters agreements of United Nations organizations should be reviewed not only with respect to their legal aspects, but also in terms of the broader socio-economic realities as well as the human resources management and work/life related issues of staff.

This, to a certain extent, is in keeping with the recent calls by the Secretary-General and others to consider the reassessment of headquarters agreements entered into by United Nations organizations and, where appropriate, to renegotiate, revise, amend and/or update those agreements that no longer meet the needs and current realities of these organizations, their staff or the host countries themselves. The more recent agreements provide extensive details of the human resources management and, in the light of changing realities, to improve overall efficiency within the organizations as well as the well-being and security of staff, issues that arise in relation to headquarters agreements.