Trump Turns U.N. Visas, Travel Restrictions Into Foreign-Policy Cudgel
If you’re deemed hostile to U.S. interests, you may face travel limitations, arbitrary visa denials, sudden airport checks, and other forms of harassment, diplomats say.
Less than two weeks before Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem was scheduled to arrive in New York City in September to attend the annual United Nations General Assembly debate, his staff received a message from the State Department. The United States would not provide the protective security detail customarily offered to the heads of foreign delegations.
But the U.S. government did assign federal police to protect a delegation of Syrian opposition leaders attending the high-level summit, according to a complaint by the Syrian government to a U.N. committee that oversees U.S. relations with the U.N. community.
The decision to withhold federal protection for a senior Syrian official is just one among a growing number of diplomatic slights experienced by delegates from a handful of countries with poor relations with the United States during their travels to New York City for United Nations meetings. It reflects the punitive nature of U.S. foreign policy under President Donald Trump, whose administration has sought myriad ways to sanction or penalize individuals and countries that are viewed as hostile to the United States, or that simply refuse to comply with U.S. demands. It reinforces the perception among some diplomats that the United States has contempt for the United Nations.
“Not exactly a high point in U.S. diplomacy,” said Larry Johnson, an American lawyer who previously served as the U.N. assistant secretary-general for legal affairs.
Johnson, an adjunct professor at Columbia University Law School, said it’s not the first time the United States has “resorted to delaying tactics and harassment” to keep unwanted foreigners out of the country. But he said Washington has acted under “weak or no legal grounds” in denying access to U.N. headquarters.
Representatives from the U.N. delegations of China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, and Syria say their diplomats and support staff are subjected to increasingly restrictive travel limitations, arbitrary denial of visas and driver’s licenses, additional airport security checks, and curtailed access to banking services needed to conduct their diplomatic work and pay their dues at the U.N., according to a report by a U.N. committee that monitors U.S. dealings with the U.N.’s 192 other states.
Those measures, they contend, violate the host country treaty, or Headquarters Agreement, signed by the United States in 1947. In many cases, the U.N.’s lawyers agree. In an Oct. 15 statement, the U.N. legal counsel told the committee that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is “concerned” by recent measures, including the rejection of a visa for a Russian national hired by the United Nations and new travel restrictions imposed on the Iranian delegation and foreign minister after Tehran refused to participate in talks with Washington. The statement said the U.N. was maintaining its long-standing position that the United States lacks legal authority to impose travel restrictions on states in retaliation for restrictions on U.S. diplomats serving in those countries. “There is no room for the application of measures based on reciprocity,” according to the statement.
The lengthy claims of diplomatic retaliation are included in a 64-page report of the U.N. host committee that details a range of matters that bear on U.S. relations with the diplomatic community in New York. The report also includes a broad swath of other issues discussed by the committee, including a domestic violence case that resulted in the arrest of the husband of a British diplomat posted at the United Nations, the mounting debt diplomats owe to New York City businesses and municipal service providers ($700,000 in 2017), and an alleged threat against a North Korean diplomat. The report—which paraphrases diplomatic discussions in the committee’s closed-door meetings from December 2018 through October 2019—does not include the names of individual speakers, only the names of their countries.
North Korea’s representative to the committee said that on April 29, an unidentified man entered the building where a senior North Korean diplomat lives and dropped off a package containing “a blackmail letter, two small bottles allegedly containing alcohol, and three pictures of a parking garage used by the senior official, which was marked with an X in chalk.” The letter, according to the North Korean diplomat, demanded that the diplomat cooperate with a certain unnamed organization through a secret contact or his life would be at risk.
The North Korean mission handed over the package to the New York Police Department. In September, the police and the FBI wrote to the mission to say their investigation concluded there was “no current threat to his Mission.” The North Koreans weren’t buying it. Surely, a country that takes “pride in its high-tech information-gathering and investigation skills” must have “failed to properly investigate,” a North Korean representative told the committee.
The vast majority of the committee’s work addresses complaints against the United States. The United Nations has reached out to the United States nearly a dozen times over the past two years to raise concerns about the measures, noting that the United States has an obligation to accommodate foreign delegates, even from governments deemed hostile, in conducting their business at the United Nations. Just last month, Guterres appealed directly to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to address those concerns, but he has failed to persuade Washington to ease conditions for those countries.
In the run-up to the U.N. General Assembly session, which opened in September, the United States rejected 58 visa applications for officials scheduled to accompany Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to the General Assembly debate, according to an Iranian representative to the U.N. host committee. There are still several visas on hold for diplomats assigned to work in the U.N. General Assembly.
The United States also failed to process 18 visas for Russian officials participating in this year’s General Assembly session, impairing their capacity to fully participate in meetings dealing with nuclear nonproliferation and U.N. legal matters, despite having received assurances by the U.S. mission that it would take measures to process the visas, according to a Russian committee member.
Diplomats say the U.S. actions have severely impeded their governments’ ability to conduct normal diplomatic activities. In early October, Russia and Iran, backed by several other countries, delayed the opening of two U.N. committees dealing with disarmament and legal affairs to protest the lack of visas.
The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations declined to respond to a lengthy list of questions on its dealings with foreign delegations in New York. A State Department spokesperson said: “We take our obligation under the UNHQ Agreement seriously. Visa records are confidential under U.S. law; therefore, we are unable to discuss individual visa cases. We evaluate each visa application on a case by case basis, consistent with existing laws and obligations.”
Interference by Washington in the comings and goings of U.N. diplomats is nothing new. The U.N. has served as a vital hub for international espionage since its creation, and many delegations, including the United States and its allies and rivals, have stationed spies in New York under diplomatic cover. Over the years, Washington has frequently barred the entry of individuals into the United States who they believe pose a threat to its national security.
The United States maintains that it has strived assiduously to meet its obligations to foreign delegations, approving more than 20,000 visas in 2018, including for delegates from rival countries, and providing 247 protective security details during the General Assembly meeting. It granted some 160 visas alone to Russia to attend this year’s General Assembly session. In the past, the U.S. mission has maintained that some hostile delegations abuse their diplomatic status to spy on the United States or threaten U.S. interests, and that they often flood the mission with urgent visa requests.
A U.S. representative to the host committee defended a decision in September to expel two Cuban diplomats for “using their positions at the Mission of Cuba as cover to engage in intelligence activities that were prejudicial to the host country’s national security.” Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Eduardo Rodríguez Parrilla denied the spying allegations on Twitter, calling it a “vulgar slander.”
Some of the restrictions—including a policy that prohibits foreign diplomats from traveling outside a 25-mile radius around Manhattan’s Columbus Circle—date back to the Cold War.
But the Trump administration has tightened those restrictions or applied them to new countries.
In February, the United States added the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro—which is recognized by the United Nations, but not the United States and many other countries, as the legitimate representative of the South American nation—to the list of countries whose delegates are subject to the 25-mile travel limit.
Following the expulsion of the two Cuban officials, the United States has restricted the travel of U.N.-based Cuban diplomats to the borough of Manhattan. The Cuban representative to the host country committee cited a case in which the Cuban mission made a request on behalf of an employee to visit his son’s school in Queens in order to arrange for his transfer to a school in Manhattan. The mission is still waiting for an answer.
Iran, meanwhile, was subjected to the most restrictive travel limitations ever imposed on a foreign delegation, following the refusal of Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to accept an invitation to meet Trump at the White House.
The arrangement confines the Iranian delegation to a handful of New York City neighborhoods, buildings, and roads leading to John F. Kennedy Airport. It allows the ambassador to travel between his residence on Fifth Avenue and U.N. headquarters. But he is not permitted to cross the street and enter Central Park.
When Iran’s foreign minister sought approval to visit Tehran’s ambassador to the U.N., Majid Takht-Ravanchi, who was being treated for cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, less than two miles north of the U.N. headquarters, his request was denied. A U.S. official told Foreign Policy at the time that Zarif’s “travel request will be granted if Iran releases a U.S. citizen.” The committee report noted that the ambassador’s sons were denied visas to travel to New York to visit their ailing father, even after officials from the U.S. mission and the U.S. Embassy recommended that they apply for a travel visa, the Iranian mission said.
Under the terms of a 1947 host country agreement the U.S. signed with the United Nations, Washington promised to grant visas “as promptly as possible” to all foreign diplomats, regardless of the state of their relations, to the United States to attend U.N. functions.
The U.S. Congress in August 1947 passed Public Law 80-357, which granted the U.S. government the authority to bar foreign individuals invited by the United Nations to attend meetings at its New York City headquarters if they are deemed to pose a threat to U.S. national security.
The U.N., however, has never accepted the legitimacy of the U.S. law. The late U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold once stated, according to a 1988 report, “that the right to transit to and from the [U.N.] Headquarters district had not been made the subject of any reservation.”
In a landmark 1988 U.N. legal ruling, Carl-August Fleischhauer, a German lawyer who served as the U.N.’s legal counsel at the time, noted that the Headquarters Agreement “does not contain a reservation of the right to bar the entry of those who represent, in the view of the host country, a threat to its security.”
Hammarskjold, however, recognized that the United States had a legitimate interest in preventing terrorists or other hostile individuals into the country, and he established an informal understanding—known as the “modus vivendi”—under which the United States would quietly make the case to the U.N. chief to block the entry of an individual suspected of plotting to do America harm.
But the issue continues to be a source of considerable tension between the United States and the United Nations, and a source of frustration for American diplomats posted at the United Nations.
In a July 2009 cable, made public by WikiLeaks, Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, complained to the State Department that the U.S. standing at the U.N. was suffering due to denials and delays of visas for foreign diplomats.
She cited the case of an Iranian official, Alireza Salari Sharifabadi, who was granted a visa to attend a U.N. meeting on the global financial crisis nearly a month after the event had already ended. U.S. “credibility is damaged when a visa is denied so long after the fact,” according to the Rice cable. The U.N. legal office, she noted, “considers visa denials and delays a serious problem.”
At the same time, the Obama administration was perfectly willing to use its power over visas to prevent an unwanted visitor from reaching Turtle Bay. In March 2011, then-Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi dispatched his top diplomat Abdulsalam Ali Treki to New York to put down a diplomatic uprising in the Libyan mission to the United Nations. But the United States delayed the issuance of a visa to Treki long enough for him to miss a critical debate on a Security Council resolution authorizing military action against Qaddafi.
Representatives from Syria, Russia, and other countries said they believed U.S. diplomats posted at the United Nations have made a good-faith effort to address some of their concerns. But they say that policymakers in Washington have imposed a series of discriminatory conditions on their delegations.
A Russian representative in the host committee cited several incidents in 2018 in which Russian diplomats or Russian U.N. staff members have been denied visas or forced to wait up to eight months to have them processed, fueling suspicions that there in an intentional policy to make life difficult for Russian diplomats.
Addressing the U.N. host committee, the Russian representative cited the denial of a visa for a Russian national who was hired by the U.N. to serve as the chief of military operations service in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
The individual applied for a visa in August 2017, and the U.N. legal office approached the United States in January 2018 to find out why it hadn’t been issued. But the United States decided to reject the request.
Six months later, in July 2018, the United States also denied a request for a visa to Konstantin Vorontsov, a counsellor in Russia’s Department of Non-proliferation and Arms Control, who was assigned to the U.N. General Assembly disarmament committee.
A Russian legal advisor, Konstantin Kosorukov, had to wait at least six months to receive a visa, leaving the mission without its top legal advisor for months.
The Cubans raised concerns about the U.S. practice of issuing single-entry visas to rival countries, making it impossible for U.N.-based diplomats to attend U.N. conferences outside the country. Cuba said that it filed a request on March 8 to renew the visa of Ambassador Humberto Rivero Rosario, Cuba’s representative to the U.N. Special Political and Decolonization Committee, so he could attend a conference on decolonization in from April 30 to May 5 in Grenada. Despite multiple efforts to persuade the U.S. to expedite the visa request, it did not provide a visa in time, and Rivero Rosario missed the conference. Two other diplomats had to wait eight months for their visas to be renewed.
The U.N. has tried to accommodate these delegations where it can. For instance, the U.N. Federal Credit Union has extended credit to governments, such as Syria and North Korea, that are prohibited by U.S. sanctions from opening bank accounts in the United States.
But there are limits to what the U.N. can achieve. When Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, arrived in New York in September, he found a less than hospitable reception from the United States, according to the Syrian representative. Federal authorities ordered an inspection of Muallem’s vehicle as he prepared to visit U.N. headquarters, requiring he make the trip on foot. Back at the hotel, he found his luggage open on the floor, being sniffed by dogs, according to the Syrian account.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch