Russia and Iran are disrupting the new cycle of United Nations committees’ work to pressure the United States to stop denying visas to their diplomats from attending the meetings in New York. While Russia often brings up visa issues to try to hold up work at the UN, such actions are no déjà vu for members of these committees.
One committee official referred to the situation as being “held hostage” by the Iranians and Russians.
Accusing the US of increasingly using visa denials as a political tool and breaching international treaty obligations, at least a dozen nations have joined Iran and Russia to stall two important UN General Assembly committees, those concentrating on disarmament and international security and on diplomatic legal matters.
A representative from one of the countries involved in the protest told PassBlue that Washington is now using visa rejection as part of a systematic strategy against enemy countries.
Russia even suggested that the committee on disarmament, known as the First Committee, should consider holding its meetings next year in Geneva or in Vienna, where the UN is also based.
“The Russians are arguing that it should simply meet in Geneva anyway, and they may have a point,” Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the International Crisis Group, wrote in an email. “It seems weird to bring over all the CD [Conference on Disarmament] ambassadors to talk to one another here when they can talk to each other in Switzerland whenever they like.”
Such a move is unlikely to happen: while Russia says it wants the First Committee to be inclusive, changing locations would have the opposite effect. Virtually all countries have UN missions in New York City — and the cost of moving to another country would be high. The UN would also incur costs, and considering that it is stuck in a budget crisis, such expenses are probably not a priority. But a spokesperson for Secretary-General António Guterres said it was up to member states to decide whether to move the next round of meetings outside the US.
The Russia-Iran revolt is happening as US power has dwindled significantly at the UN this year because the US had no permanent representative in place for nine months and the government is deeply distracted in Washington. The void left by the Trump administration in the UN has enabled Russia to seize the upper hand and revive Cold War style stand-offs.
Countries supporting the Iran-Russian protest include China, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. (China, for one, has not had an increase in visa denials recently but had visas denied in the past.)
Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, the new president of the General Assembly, said in response to the deliberate delays: “It’s important to adopt a constructive approach to any issue so we can get work done in a timely manner and constructively.”
Countries take sides
Iran claims that 58 diplomats faced visa restrictions in attending the annual opening session of the General Assembly in September, while Russia said 18 diplomats still don’t have visas. While visa denials from Washington have been a continuous bone of contention for certain UN member states, countries obstructing committee work on such a large scale poses a new challenge for diplomats.
A member of the General Assembly legal committee, or Sixth Committee, told PassBlue that the disruption forces member states to raise the issue with their respective capitals and take a position on the US behavior.
Besides the First Committee, Russia and Iran have targeted the Sixth Committee, which focuses on legal matters that deal directly with visa issues. Iran even forwarded a motion to adjourn a meeting on Oct. 4, until the issue is resolved. The motion was overwhelmingly declined by 78 countries, including the US.
Russia’s complaints in the First Committee started about six months ago, during the UN Committee on Disarmament’s meeting in Washington. (It is formally called the 2019 Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.)
“The First Committee may be especially vulnerable to this sort of disruption because so many delegates come from Geneva for it,” Gowan of the International Crisis Group said.
Numerous Russian diplomats didn’t make it in time for the Washington conference, according to Russia, and Moscow argued that the visa denials robbed the country of its fair share of representation on the committee.
The US reserves the right to deny visas for security reasons, but some countries now accuse Washington of severely abusing this reservation, which was added to the host country agreement, or headquarters agreement, by US Congress in 1947.
A request for comment on the visa problem from the US State Department was not answered. The spokesman for the Iran mission to the UN said in an email that the issue is still under discussion.
A Russian diplomat who said he would speak to PassBlue about the problem — which the Russian mission to the UN has been broadcasting on its Twitter pages — suddenly declined to talk this week.
The problem for countries on the disarmament committee, echoed by the US and others on Oct. 3, is that it is not an appropriate setting to discuss visa problems. “We deeply regret the situation, but it’s not a discussion that needs to happen in the committee on disarmament,” a European member of the committee told PassBlue, asking for anonymity.
After Russia and Iran disrupted the Sixth Committee on Oct. 3, the chair suspended its meetings for a few days to find a solution. On Oct. 8, the committee then adopted part of its program of work, an unusual move, as it generally adopts the whole agenda as it enters a new cycle of annual meetings. The compromise by the chair, Michal Mlynar of Slovakia, was copied by the First Committee.
What is more disturbing for some members of the committees is that, according to a legal adviser in the Sixth Committee, it “has worked for decades on the basis of consensus, but it has become harder and harder to achieve it in recent years.”
Sacha Llorenti, a Bolivian and the chair of the disarmament committee, said, “The committee’s dynamic currently mirrors geopolitics.”
During one general debate in that committee, after it adopted a partial agenda, Russia was criticized for its behavior, including for breaching international nuclear treaties in general.
In the past, Russia has used visas to hinder the work of the UN by trying to get visas to diplomats who are sanctioned by the US, such as Konstantin Kosachev, the chair of Russia’s foreign affairs committee in Moscow. It then uses the denials to accuse the US of abusing its role as the host government, many diplomats say.
Geopolitically, the US has a huge advantage in bilateral relations by having the final say on granting a visa to a diplomat who wants to visit the UN headquarters in New York. While the US is the host country of the largest UN operation in the world, this power comes with enormous legal responsibilities set out in the treaty governing this role.
A former diplomat member of the UN Committee on Relations With the Host Country, part of the Sixth Committee, told PassBlue: “I wouldn’t say that the US is using this issue as a political tool. That said, due to the aforementioned flexibility” — regarding interpretation of the headquarters agreement — “sometimes it is difficult to come to a clear conclusion whether there has been a violation.”
The UN headquarters agreement was signed in 1947 by Secretary-General Trygve Lie and US Secretary of State George Marshall. Article 11 prohibits the US from imposing restrictions on travel to the UN by its members and their representatives. At the same time, though, the US Congress later approved a Joint Resolution allowing the US to restrict visas for security concerns. It states such concerns that “Shall be construed as in any way diminishing, abridging, or weakening the right of the United States to safeguard its own security and completely to control the entrance of aliens into any territory of the United States other than the headquarters district and its immediate vicinity. . . . “
The US has used the security restriction in the past, sometimes against high-profile people. A famous case was against the Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat (and Nobel Peace Prize winner), under President Ronald Reagan in 1988. The UN host country committee condemned the US for its decision, which was followed up with a resolution denouncing the US. It was adopted almost unanimously by the General Assembly — except by the US and Israel.
Meanwhile, the host country committee said it would make recommendations on visa issues in November.
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.