Visa denial raises interesting debate about hosting the UN

unacto1This week we witnessed a very interesting element of the workings of the United Nations. The UN headquarters is located in New York, and thus the US is required to allow UN diplomats gain entry to the US in order to carry out their work. It does still have the right to refuse diplomatic entry visas, however this is rare as in doing so it gives the US a say in who represents the countries at the UN and its various bodies.

The US on Friday, denied Hamid Aboulatebi, Iran’s chosen UN envoy, a US visa, effectively blocking him from taking up his new role. Despite a 35-year diplomatic malaise in which the countries broke off relations, Iran retained its presence at the UN. Its diplomats and visiting leaders are confined to New York but are approved diplomatic passage for the sole purposes of the UN. The reason behind America’s decision to deny a visa to Mr. Aboulatebi is his involvement in a group linked to the infamous Iran Hostage Crisis between 1979 and 1981. The incident involved 52 American diplomats and citizens being held hostage for 444 days by student supporters of the Iranian Revolution. Mr. Aboulatebi insists his role was ‘limited to translation and negotiation’[1]. Previous denials of visa’s linked to UN work include another person involved in the Hostage Crisis who was sent to speak to the UN in the 1990’s as well as more recently, Omar Al-Bashir, President of Sudan.

The issue at hand here hasScreen Shot 2014-04-13 at 7.48.54 PM wider implications for the running of the UN as a multilateral institution, which should not be beholden to US domestic decisions. The argument is summed up in the American and Iranian positions on the Aboulatebi case. Reaction from America since the decision that the selection “was not viable”, has been mixed. Senator Ted Cruz said the administration “did the right thing barring this acknowledged terrorist from coming into the country”[2]. Conversely, an interesting editorial in the Los Angeles Times points out that Mr Aboulatebi was 22 yrs old when the hostage incident took place. They write that “it is not unknown for youthful radicals to mature into middle-aged statesmen”[3]. An example of this from my own country, Ireland, is Martin McGuinness. The former IRA leader is now Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Only this week, Mr McGuinness attended a state banquet hosted by Queen Elizabeth for the Irish President. His attendance at the Queen’s residence, even standing to toast the British Monarch, would have been unthinkable for both sides only a short 10 years ago.

Iran, itself, believed the rejection was “not acceptable” and “in contravention of international law, the obligation of the host country and the inherent right of sovereign member-states to designate their representatives to the United Nations.”[4].

It would be desirable that Nations conducted their affairs at the very highest standards and respected the forum, which the UN offers. It is debatable whether Iran did that in this case. However, it is still worth discussing whether America as host country, does have obligations to see the UN and its work as separate from its normal diplomatic protocols. As Iran refuses to name an alternative, the debate will continue. Analysts are wondering how this spat will affect the recent détente between the US and Iran.

Post written by UNAC-Vancouver Board member and website writer, Barry Hynes.