For the United States, the host country, the annual spectacle involves political and economic diplomacy, as well as the logistical complications of providing security and managing traffic.
But there’s a new twist. In recent years, the September diplomatic pilgrimage to New York has acquired a new level of complexity, as a growing number of foreign officials likely to attend the meetings face individual U.S. sanctions and travel bans. This week featured drama about whether Iran’s leaders — including a minister facing individual sanctions — would receive visas to attend the U.N. meetings.
Here’s what to watch for as high-level diplomacy and personalized sanctions mix.
Travel restrictions are a popular way to punish foreign leaders
Imposing sanctions directly on individuals and businesses aiding hostile regimes has become a popular diplomatic practice. In theory, these “smart sanctions” avoid punishing whole populations — instead, they target those deemed most responsible for offensive policies.
The U.S. government, the European Union and the U.N. Security Council itself have all experimented with various ways of sanctioning foreign officials and business leaders deemed responsible for proliferation, human rights abuses and various other misdeeds. And others, including the Russian government, have sometimes gotten into the game in response.
Within the U.S. government, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has become the focal point for action against those deemed especially culpable. The office maintains a long and growing dossier of individuals and businesses saddled with asset freezes and travel bans — the “Specially Designated Nationals And Blocked Persons List.”
The Trump administration has not been shy about employing these tools. In July, the administration, acting through the Treasury Department, slapped sanctions on Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, noting the relationship between the ministry he leads and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards force.
Venezuelan and Russian officials have run into U.S. sanctions
Iranian officials aren’t the only targets. In April, Treasury sanctioned Jorge Arreaza Montserrat, the Venezuelan foreign minister in the regime of Nicolás Maduro. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pledged that the U.S. government would “target corrupt Maduro insiders, including those tasked with conducting diplomacy and carrying out justice on behalf of this illegitimate regime.”
These measures followed several rounds of sanctions imposed on more than a dozen senior Russian government and business figures after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and then allegations of interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Among the sanctioned Russians is Vladislav Surkov. A close Putin adviser some analysts have dubbed the “gray cardinal” of Putin’s regime, Surkov allegedly helped shape Putin’s media strategy and aspects of the country’s Ukraine policy.
As foreign officials descend on New York, the U.S. government will be keeping a close eye on whether any of those on the list make a bid to attend. Venezuela’s President Maduro plans to skip the U.N. meetings, and it is not clear whether his sanctioned foreign minister will attend. But Iranian foreign minister Zarif reportedly has been granted a visa and will be en route to New York.
What international law requires
From the perspective of the United Nations and most other countries, the question of whether to grant entry visas to even unsavory foreign officials has a simple answer: The United States is legally bound to admit anyone on U.N. business.
In the 1947 Headquarters Agreement, a treaty between the United States and the United Nations, the U.S. government committed not to “impose any impediments to transit to or from” the area around U.N. headquarters. And more than just allowing free passage, the United States is obliged to provide “any necessary protection” to U.N. visitors while they are in transit to U.N. premises.
In that treaty, Washington did carve out some wiggle room — it retained the right to prevent people admitted for U.N. meetings from leaving the area immediately around the U.N. headquarters, when necessary to “safeguard its own security.” In the past, the U.S. government has sometimes given certain national officials a prescribed travel radius from U.N. headquarters. But nothing in the treaty permits the U.S. government to deny entry entirely to an accredited diplomat or other U.N. invitee.
That hasn’t always stopped the United States. In 1988, the Reagan administration denied Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a visa to give a speech at the U.N. because of his links to terrorism. That decision provoked protests even among close allies and eventually prompted the U.N. to shift that meeting of the General Assembly to Geneva, where Arafat spoke.
The Obama administration grappled several times over the issue of admitting Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for U.N. meetings. Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide, ultimately chose not to force the issue.
What sanctions mean for businesses
Administration officials facing visa requests are not the only ones sweating about how to balance their obligations. U.S. sanctions could have implications for businesses that cater to diplomats at the U.N. Can hotels and restaurants in New York offer services and accept payment from a sanctioned individual? It’s clear that the hospitality industry is not immune. In June, the Treasury Department fined Expedia and another hotel booking service for violating sanctions policy toward Cuba.
In response to a query on the legality of dealing with sanctioned diplomats, a Treasury Department offered that “whether a particular transaction is prohibited under U.S. sanctions laws and regulations depends on the particular facts and circumstances of the situation.” The official noted that businesses can also apply for waivers in some circumstances.
Diplomacy between hostile countries has always been a complicated and sometimes dangerous endeavor. But the increasing use of individualized sanctions means that catering to diplomats carries its risks as well.