Turtle Bay

TurtleLeaks: No visa, no entry! How the U.S. bars diplos from the U.N.

When Muammar al-Qaddafi was confronted with a diplomatic rebellion at the Libyan mission to the United Nations in March, he quickly tried to dispatch a top diplomat to New York to regain control of his diplomatic outpost. But the official, Abdulsalam Ali Treki, couldn’t get his visa approved by the U.S. State Department in time ...

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
NEW YORK - JANUARY 5: A sign explains new procedures for identification of foreign travelers holding visas entering the U.S. January 5, 2004 at JFK airport in New York City. Today, JFK began taking finger scans and photographs of people entering the U.S. for the purpose of checking against terrorist watch lists. U.S. citizens and holders of green cards, as well as individuals from 27 countries whose citizens are not required to obtain visas to travel to U.S. are exempt from the requirement. The system, called US-VISIT, for United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, will be implemented at 115 American airports and 14 seaports. (Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

When Muammar al-Qaddafi was confronted with a diplomatic rebellion at the Libyan mission to the United Nations in March, he quickly tried to dispatch a top diplomat to New York to regain control of his diplomatic outpost. But the official, Abdulsalam Ali Treki, couldn’t get his visa approved by the U.S. State Department in time for an important debate on a Security Council resolution authorizing military action against Qaddafi. Eventually, the Libyan diplomat defected, making the matter moot.

Still, the incident stirred long-standing suspicions that the United States sometimes inappropriately delays and denies visas for foreign nationals attending U.N. functions. Those complaints have been routinely dismissed by Republican and Democratic administrations, who note that some delegations wait until the last minute to file applications. But a previously unpublished diplomatic cable, obtained from WikiLeaks, now shows U.S. officials acknowledging having waited until after a diplomatic event had concluded to issue a decision about relevant visa applications.

For years, the way the United States issues diplomatic visas has irked U.N. lawyers and annoyed foreign governments, including Cuba, Iran, Russia and Venezuela, who complain that the U.S. routinely scuttles the plans of their leaders or allies to visit the U.N. for important meetings. The accusations have embarrassed diplomats at the U.S. mission in New York: In one cable from July 2009, they protested that U.S. “credibility is damaged when a visa is denied so long after the fact.”

In that cable, U.S. officials reported that an Iranian official named Alireza Salari Sharifabadi had sought a U.S. visa to attend a meeting at the U.N. from June 24 to June 26 on the subject of the global financial crisis. But the U.S. delayed a decision until nearly a month after the event had occurred, informing the Iranian mission only in late July that it had rejected the request.

In a cable signed by Susan E. Rice, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., American officials alerted the lawyers at the U.N.’s Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) that the visa “denial was made pursuant to the long-standing modus vivendi,” a practice that has been used to bar foreign diplomats suspected of engaging in activities that could threaten U.S. national security. The U.N. generally “supports the modus vivendi and does not challenge us when we invoke it,” according to the cable. But “OLA was surprised that a decision to deny the visa was made almost a month after the end of the meeting that the applicant sought to attend. As the department is aware, OLA considers visa denials and delays a serious problem.”

As host of the United Nations, the United States is bound by a series of international treaties — including a U.N. host-country agreement — to expeditiously approve visas for foreign delegations seeking to do legitimate diplomatic business at the United Nations. Every year, it processes visas for thousands of foreign diplomats, including highly controversial world leaders from Mahmoud Ahmadenijad to Muammar Qaddafi. But for every foreign despot that gets green-lighted, there are many obscure diplomats that get barred from entry.

Most visa disputes are “so small bore that they are not interesting enough to warrant much in the way of press attention,” Jeffrey Laurenti, a U.N. expert at the Century Foundation told Turtle Bay. But the practice comes across as a “petty game” that runs counter to the U.S. obligation as host of a global organization, Laurenti said. “Sometimes that means having to receive people that would not normally find and open door.”

But occasionally a visa dispute can morph into a major diplomatic incident. In 1988, the administration of President Ronald Reagan denied the late Yasir Arafat, then chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, permission to enter the country to address the General Assembly. In protest, the assembly decided to convene its meeting in Geneva.

In 2005, the State Department considered blocking a visit by Ahmadinejad after a former American hostage in the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran claimed to have recognized him as one of the hostage takers. Ultimately, the Iranian president was granted entry. Two years later, in March, 2007, the Iranian government complained that Ahmadinejad had been forced to cancel a visit to New York to address the Security Council on the eve of a vote on sanctions because U.S. officials had presented his air crew with visas too late.

U.S. officials challenged that account, saying they had provided the Iranian president and his delegation with a total of 75 visas in time for them to make the trip. They said Tehran had fabricated a crisis over the visas to spare their leader the embarrassment of seeing his country condemned for refusing to halt its uranium-enrichment program. “Any suggestion that visa issues are the cause of President Ahmadinejad’s decision not to travel to New York is false,” a State Department spokesman told reporters. “Rather, it would appear that he is unwilling to stand before the council and take the heat for his continued defiance of the international community.”

Other foreign governments have also accused the United States of abusing its status by barring important political figures. In April 2007, Russia’s U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin blasted the United States for denying Sergei Shamba, a pro-Russian foreign minister of the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia, a visa to travel to New York to attend a meeting of the Security Council.

The United Nations has privately urged the U.S. to process visas quicker, but it has declined to publicly criticize the practice. There is a “host country committee which deals with these issues,” said Farhan Haq, the U.N. deputy spokesman. “If there is a dispute we can bring it up in the committee.”

U.S. officials declined to comment on the cable, citing its confidential nature. But they insisted that they are working in good faith to meet their obligations to facilitate diplomatic travel to the U.N. “We take very seriously our responsibilities as host country of the United Nations headquarters, and we are committed to fulfilling our treaty obligations to facilitate the work of member states,” said Mark Kornblau, the spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations.

In the Libyan case, the visa has hindered the Libya regime’s capacity to defend itself. Qaddafi put forward a Nicaraguan diplomat, Miguel d’Escoto Brockman, who was already in New York on a tourist visa, as its representative. Libya’s former foreign minister, Musa Kusa, claimed in a letter in March to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that he was forced to take this extraordinary move “given the impossibility of [Treki taking] upon its duties as the representative of the Jamahiriya [Libya] for not being given an entrance visa to the United States of America.”

But Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, questioned D’Escoto’s right to take up the Libyan seat at the United Nations, noting that Kusa had defected shortly after putting d’Escoto’s name forward and was no longer a member of the Libyan government. “The first question is whether he has actually been appointed in any legitimate fashion that anybody needs to consider at this stage,” Rice told reporters.

Rice also noted that D’Escoto had arrived in the U.S. recently on a tourist visa. “A tourist visa does not allow you to represent any country, Nicaragua, Libya, or any other at the United Nations,” she said. “Should he wish and should, in fact, the Libyan regime seek to re-nominate him by some legitimate representative of the Libyan government, which itself is questionable in its legitimacy, to be the putative permanent representative here, that person, if he were to be Mr. D’Escoto, needs to leave the United States and apply for an appropriate G1 visa. If he purports to be or act like a representative of a foreign government on a tourist visa, he will soon find that his visa status will be reviewed.”

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch