Germany: The UN headquarters in New York must be accessible to all member States

Published: 10 January 2020 Author: Stefan Talmon

On 7 January 2020, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif claimed in a news interview that the United States had denied him a visa that would have allowed him to attend a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York scheduled for later in the week. The spokesperson for the Iranian Permanent Mission to the United Nations said that the visa application had been lodged with the U.S. authorities on 20 December 2019, one day after the Foreign Minister had received an invitation from the Security Council to speak at a ministerial meeting on 9 January 2020 on “Upholding the United Nations Charter for the maintenance of international peace and security.”

Foreign Minister Zarif’s visa problems came amid escalating tensions between the two countries after Iran-backed Shia militias tried to storm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and the United States killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike.

The spokesperson for the German Federal Foreign Office commented on the issue on 8 January 2020 as follows:

“Especially in times of increased international tension, the United Nations [headquarters] must be accessible to all member States as a place for talks and negotiations. This is one of the fundamental operating principles of the UN, for which we work together with our European Union partners.

Questions of visas for access to the UN headquarters in New York are governed by the 1947 Headquarters Agreement between the United Nations and the United States. The Headquarters Agreement provides for unrestricted access to the UN headquarters in New York for foreign nationals. This applies – as is expressly spelled out in the Headquarters Agreement – irrespective of particular bilateral relations.
Questions regarding the implementation of this Agreement will be discussed in a competent body of the UN General Assembly, the Committee on Relations with the Host Country. At the moment, we are not represented on this Committee, but some of our EU partners are. In principle, enforcement of the Agreement is a task of the UN Secretary General. He reports on these matters to the Committee on Relations with the Host Country which, in turn, reports to the UN General Assembly. […]

It is first and foremost a task of the UN Secretary General to ensure that the Headquarters Agreement is implemented and that is what he will do; he has always done that in the past.”

The UN Headquarters Agreement provides in Article IV, section 11 that the “federal, state or local authorities of the United States shall not impose any impediments to transit to or from the headquarters district of : ( 1 ) representatives of Members […] of the United Nations.” Section 12 expressly states that the “provisions of Section 11 shall be applicable irrespective of the relations existing between the Governments of the persons referred to in that section and the Government of the United States.” Section 13(a) provides that “laws and regulations in force in the United States regarding the entry of aliens shall not be applied in such manner as to interfere with the privileges referred to in Section 11. When visas are required for persons referred to in that section, they shall be granted without charge and as promptly as possible.” Contrary to the United States’ longstanding claim there are no “security, terrorism and foreign policy” exceptions to the obligation to allow unimpeded access to the UN headquarters district in New York and the U.S. Government did not claim to apply such an exception in the present case. Rather than formally denying the visa request, a U.S. official stated on 7 January 2020 that the application could not be processed in time for the Iranian Minister’s travel.

While not expressly accusing the United States of violating its obligations under the Headquarters Agreement, Germany made it clear that it expected the United States to honour its obligations under the agreement both in word and spirit.

Category: United Nations

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  • Stefan Talmon

    Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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