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UN chief laments he can't sell Manhattan mansion to raise funds

While it has many valuable assets, it can't generate cash from them to pay for its many obligations

New York

THE United Nations' cash flow problems are so severe that even its secretary-general says he wishes he could sell his official residence in Manhattan's stately Sutton Place neighbourhood. But he can't even do that.

Antonio Guterres said he learned that the Manhattan mansion with sweeping views of the East River can't be be put on the market because the US has a claim on it.

"The first thing I did when I arrived was to ask if I could sell the residence," he told diplomats on Tuesday. "I am not joking. It is a true story. I discovered that I couldn't, because the residence can only be sold to the United States of America when we close the doors in New York."

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The UN isn't going to close its doors anytime soon, but Mr Guterres was pressing the case that the world body is under increasing financial stress.

Thanks to some member states failing to pay what they owe and byzantine budget rules that constrain the UN's ability to move its money around efficiently, the organisation is facing a combined shortfall of almost US$2 billion for peacekeeping operations and its regular budget.

One culprit from the UN's perspective is US President Donald Trump, who capped the American contribution to the organisation's peacekeeping budget at 25 per cent even though the world body says it should pay 28.5 per cent.

That has left a gap that can't be closed, Mr Guterres says, because if he cuts costs to cover it, all other countries get to lower their contributions too.

The Manhattan house was built for Anne Morgan, the daughter of the banking titan J P Morgan and a woman's rights advocate early in the 20th century.

It recently underwent a renovation to fix its central air and heating system. The Georgian-style townhouse is adorned with antique English panelling, a marble-floored reception hall and 10 fireplaces, according to The New York Times.

Its views aren't affected by a 67-storey condominium tower going up nearby over protests and legal challenges from a neighbourhood group.

The US mission was offered the Sutton Place residence by Arthur Houghton Jr, the president of Steuben Glass, according to the book A Worldly Affair: New York, the United Nations, and the Story Behind Their Unlikely Bond.

The government chose instead to house its ambassador in a penthouse at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in downtown New York.

After the Waldorf was purchased by a Chinese company, Anbang Insurance Group, the State Department leased a full-floor penthouse at 50 United Nations Plaza that now serves as the official residence of the US ambassador.

The mansion on Sutton Place was donated to the UN in 1972 and has been home to every secretary-general since Kurt Waldheim.

Mr Guterres noted that his inability to sell the home shows that looking at the UN balance sheet can be misleading.

While it has many valuable assets, including sprawling headquarters in mid-town Manhattan, it can't generate cash from them to pay for its many obligations, including peacekeeping missions that are running out of money.

"We have, of course, more assets than liabilities, but not enough liquid assets," he told diplomats in New York. "I cannot sell this building." BLOOMBERG