Message to Ostracized World Leaders: You Don’t Need a US Visa to Address the UN

Human Wrongs Watch

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 23 2020 (IPS)* – The coronavirus pandemic is beginning to transform the United Nations into an institution far beyond recognition. The Secretariat building has been shut down since mid-March, and the UN campus will continue to remain a ghost town through end July– and perhaps beyond– with nearly 3,000 staffers, delegates and journalists working, mostly from home.



The Leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat, arrived at UN Headquarters by helicopter. A view of the helicopter as it approached the North Lawn of the UN campus on 13 November 1974. But Arafat was denied a US visa for a second visit to the UN in 1988. Credit: UN Photo/Michos Tzovaras

And most meetings, including Security Council sessions, are taking place via video teleconferencing (VTC) while “informal consultations” are done “remotely,” along with “virtual:” press briefings.

Last week the UN hosted a “virtual ministerial pledging conference” with hardly a minister in sight.

The deadly pandemic has, most crucially, grounded the upcoming session of the General Assembly, an annual event which usually attracts over 150 world leaders. And it has also upended the “live” commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the world body.

And so, perhaps for the first time in the 75-year history of the UN, most world leaders would be invited to address the General Assembly via pre-recorded video statements.

The message particularly to ostracized world leaders – and those “blacklisted” by the US — is clear: You don’t need a US visa to address the UN, come September.

Dr Palitha Kohona, a former Chief of the Treaty Section in the UN Office of Legal Affairs, told IPS the US has denied entry visas to certain individuals to attend meetings of the world body, including senior officials from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Venezuela, Russia, North Korea and Cuba, among others.

The US will be severely challenged if it seeks to justify its actions as being consistent with its obligations under the Headquarters Agreement with the UN. (HQ Agreement, 11 UNTS 1), he argued.

With the US in the present confrontational mood, and the real risk of an intractable conflict between the UN and the US, COVID-19 provides a convenient way out, with which the UN will be comfortable.

The members of the world body can now opt to address the organisation through video link, he said.

An entry visa will no longer be sine qua non for the purpose of entering the US and addressing the UN, said Dr Kohona, a former chair of the General Assembly’s Legal Committee and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN.

Meanwhile, some key meetings, including those focusing on nuclear disarmament, women’s rights, indigenous peoples and biodiversity – have been postponed, plus the Conference of Parties (COP26) on climate change scheduled to take place late November in Glasgow, Scotland.

The beneficiaries, if they do exercise their right to address the UN, via video conferencing, would include leaders from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Venezuela, North Korea and Cuba, who are virtually designated persona non grata by the US– even as a growing new political confrontation continues between Washington and Beijing.

Last week Michael Pompeo, US Secretary of State, had an implicit warning: “the United Nations Human Rights Council (in Geneva), now comprised of Venezuela and recently, Cuba and China, has long been and remains a haven for dictators and democracies that indulge them. It is a grave disappointment to those genuinely seeking to advance human dignity.”

Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), told IPS “I’m not an expert on US visa law, but banning foreign leaders from being able to attend the UN General Assembly would seem to violate the spirit of the UN headquarters agreement”.

The US and Soviet Union were on the brink of nuclear war in 1960, but Khrushchev was still allowed to attend the UN and bang his shoe on the desk, he said.

And Che Guevara, also no friend of the US, was allowed to speak to the UN General Assembly in 1964, although in that case someone tried to fire a bazooka at the UN in retaliation, he noted.

“However, with regard to the International Criminal Court (ICC), it is an independent court and is in a different category. While I think that the United States threatening sanctions against ICC officials is unethical and antithetical to international justice, I guess it is their legal right to do so.”

It just means that the United States has now joined a select club of countries, mostly ruled by dictators and atrocity perpetrators, that threaten ICC officials and their families for doing their jobs and upholding international law, said Dr Adams, who worked with Sinn Féin and former IRA prisoners in support of the Northern Ireland peace process.

In theory, he said, that means even North Korea’s Kim Jung Un could make a speech to the UN General Assembly this year–although given his recent bromance with the US President, he could probably get a visa anyway, he added.

“Personally, I think any leader of a UN member state should always be given the opportunity to address the annual General Assembly, unless they are currently under ICC indictment for war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide,” declared Dr Adams, a former member of the international anti-apartheid movement and of the African National Congress in South Africa.


Last week the General Assembly held its elections by secret ballot without a plenary meeting. Elections were held for 75th President of the General Assembly; new non-permanent members of the Security Council; and new members of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Volkan Bozkir from Turkey was elected President of the seventy-fifth session of the General Assembly. Credit: UN photo

Iftikhar Ali, a longstanding UN correspondent for the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), who has covered General Assembly sessions since 1971, told IPS the upcoming “virtual high-level debate” with only a small number of diplomats present in the iconic General Assembly hall will be devoid of the excitement, colour and high expectations that has always generated by the physical presence of 100-plus world leaders.

No bilateral meetings between friends or foes, no receptions or dinners where discussions take place in a relaxed atmosphere that help ease tensions in parts of the world, he said.

Also absent will be hundreds of television cameramen and reporters from around the world who push and shove to get closer to action with nervous security men chasing them around, said Ali, who worked for the U.N. in Tehran and Kosovo and is a former President of the UN correspondents’ Association (UNCA) and Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Memorial Scholarship Fund from 1984-1993.

“In short, the crucial week-long high-level debate will make very little contribution to advancing the cause of international peace and security,” declared Ali.

In 1988, when Yassir Arafat was denied a US visa for a second visit to New York to address the General Assembly sessions, the United Nations delivered a resounding slap at the United States by temporarily moving the UN’s highest policy making body to Geneva in order to provide a global platform for the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

On his first visit in 1974, he avoided the hundreds of pro and anti-Arafat demonstrators outside the UN building by arriving in a helicopter which landed on the North Lawn of the UN campus adjoining the East River.

But since then several political leaders—mostly antagonistic towards the US or heading regimes under American sanctions– have either been denied visas or implicitly declared persona non grata.

As a result, heads of state from “rogue nations,” including North Korea’s Kim Il Sung and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, never addressed the UN while, more recently, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, have avoided the UN, even though they have a legitimate right to address the General Assembly, as leaders of UN member states.

When former Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, accused of war crimes, was refused a US visa to attend the high level segment of the General Assembly sessions back in September 2013, a Sudanese delegate told the UN’s Legal Committee that “the democratically-elected president of Sudan had been deprived of the opportunity to participate in the General Assembly because the host country, the United States, had denied him a visa, in violation of the U.N.-U.S. Headquarters Agreement.”

Asked if world leaders like Bashar al Assad and Kim Jong un could remotely address the General Assembly, UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq told reporters last week “arrangements are being finalised”.

“We do expect to have a virtual component, but you’ll have seen what the outgoing General Assembly President said in his briefing last week about this issue”.

“As we get closer to the specific arrangements, the General Assembly President and his office, including our spokeswoman, Reem Abaza, could provide you with more details. But we do expect that there will be some virtual component, and that format is still being decided among the Member States,” he noted.

Pressed further, Haq said he does not want to prejudge what is currently being discussed by Member States.

“We’re working for a mix of virtual attendance and then some limited physical attendance, and it’s been very clear that it will have to be limited,” he noted.

The writer can be contacted at


2020 Human Wrongs Watch

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