The US decision to impose travel restrictions on Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif when he made a visit to UN headquarters in New York for a 17 July meeting inflamed already strained tensions between Tehran and Washington.

In a break from the usual courtesy extended to foreign dignitaries travelling to attend the United Nations in New York, the US confined Zarif’s movements to only permit attendance at United Nations headquarters, as well as access to the Permanent Mission of Iran to the UN and to the Iranian ambassador’s residence. The US action prompted the United Nations to register its concerns with its American host.

The case highlighted the challenges that arise for host countries in reconciling their multilateral obligations and bilateral policies. In this instance, the US affected Iran’s ability to fully engage with the UN community. It meant that had there been any UN-related meetings or activities held outside the permissible scope of Zarif’s visit to the US, he would not have been able to participate.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif with UN Secretary General António Guterres on 18 July in New York
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif with UN Secretary-General António Guterres on 18 July in New York (Photo: Eskinder Debebe/United Nations)

This practice of denying or restricting visits to the United States for multilateral engagements is neither new nor unique, however. The US has a history of denying diplomats and government officials visas to attend the United Nations, or restricting their movements, in order to give effect to its bilateral and domestic policies.

For example, diplomats from Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Russia, all accredited to the UN, have worked with restrictive movements around the United States for many years. Recently, Fatou Bensouda, judge of the International Criminal Court, had her visa to enter the US revoked after she expressed her intention to investigate possible war crimes by US soldiers in Afghanistan.

There have been other high-profile cases. In 2013, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir was reportedly denied entry to the United States while he was President, although the US State Department said at the time al-Bashir’s visa had not been denied but that the application was under review. The request by the International Criminal Court to arrest al-Bashir (whom it has indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide) if he entered the United States most likely played a part in the protracted review of al-Bashir’s application, although others would say it was a stalling tactic.

In 1988, Yasser Arafat was denied a visa to address the UN in New York on the grounds of his support for international terrorism. In an unprecedented move, the UN General Assembly convened its meeting in Geneva to allow Arafat to speak.

Yasser Afarat at the UN in Geneva in 1988
Yasser Afarat at the UN in Geneva in 1988 (Photo: United Nations)

To monitor host-country obligations, the UN’s General Assembly convenes a meeting of the Committee on Host Country Affairs, where UN member states are able to register grievances concerning the treatment of their government officials and diplomats. The consequence of this drafting exercise is often ambiguity over whether restrictions by the US have contravened its host-country obligations.

Article IV of the Host Country Agreement between the US and the UN provides that the US “shall not impose any impediment to or from the Headquarters district” of persons attending UN meetings, and that persons “shall be applicable irrespective of the relations existing between the Government of the persons referred to in that section and the Government of the United States”. However, the section continues that:

The United States retains full control and authority over the entry of persons or property into the territory of the United States and the conditions under which persons may remain or reside there.

So, the Host Country Agreement does confer latitude for the United States to restrict the movement of foreign dignitaries. In Zarif’s case, he was not denied access to the UN, even though his movements around the US were in fact limited.

The US has a history of denying diplomats and government officials visas to attend the United Nations, or restricting their movements, in order to give effect to its bilateral and domestic policies.

There have been other instances around the world where countries embroiled in diplomatic tensions have used their host-country status to embarrass or frustrate the engagement of other countries in the multilateral process. In 2018, Nauru, as chair of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), would not stamp visas in the diplomatic passports of members of the Chinese delegation, opting instead to stamp their regular passports. Nauru has diplomatic relations with Taiwan and this move was interpreted as a deliberate slight towards Beijing. While the Chinese delegation did attend the PIF, Nauru had still invoked its bilateral position with China to embarrass the Chinese government.

Similarly, in 2009 Fiji rejected the visa application of Australia’s Defence Adviser to the South Pacific, preventing the adviser from working in the region with the governments of Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Kiribati, and Nauru, as well as Fiji. This denial was notable during a period of diplomatic expulsions, because it affected Australia’s ability to coordinate with regional Pacific Island allies. Bilateral considerations had thus been given priority over the multilateral process.

The experience of multilateral fora being compromised by bilateral considerations remains a significant challenge for multilateral diplomacy and international organisations, despite their function as venues for countries to explore common ground. There are responsibilities of host countries in facilitating the multilateral process, but the reality is that the bilateral and domestic sensitivities will continue to be paramount and influence multilateralism.

While it may be fraught, it is unrealistic to expect any country to agree to abrogate its sovereign rights in order to receive host country status.

The General Assembly Hall at UN Headquarters in New York
The General Assembly Hall at UN Headquarters in New York (Photo: Manuel Elias/United Nations)