UN General Assembly Should Allow US to Deny Al Bashir Access
[John P. Cerone is Visiting Professor of International Law at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy (Tufts University) and Professor of Law at the New England School of Law. He has also served as Special Advisor to the US delegation to the UN Human Rights Council and as a legal advisor to international criminal courts.]
Omar al Bashir, President of Sudan and fugitive from international criminal justice, must not be allowed to address the United Nations General Assembly. To permit him to appear on the rostrum would undermine the credibility of the United Nations as a whole, and in particular in the realm of human rights.
Beginning on September 24, an unprecedented number of Heads of State and Government began to converge as the General Debate opened for the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Mr. Bashir has recently confirmed his intention to travel to New York to participate in the session.
The General Assembly has it within its power to waive the US obligation to admit Mr. Bashir onto US territory. Arresting him in the US is not an option, as Mr. Bashir is immune from arrest under obligations owed to Sudan. And even if the US was prepared to violate these obligations, or to attempt to craft legal arguments to circumvent them, arresting a visiting Head of State who had lawfully been admitted to the US in order to address the UN General Assembly could precipitate a constitutional crisis in the United Nations.
However, unlike the obligation to respect his immunity, which is an obligation owed to Sudan, the obligation to facilitate his travel to the UN is an obligation owed to the UN as an organization, and not to Sudan.
The Headquarters Agreement, which requires the United States to facilitate the travel of Member State officials to UN Headquarters, is a bilateral treaty that was approved by the UN General Assembly in 1947. There are only two parties to the treaty – the US and the UN as an organization, and the rights accorded to the UN under the treaty are for the benefit of the organization. (Sudan is not a party to that treaty, and any rights incidentally conferred on third parties could be suspended by the mutual consent of the two parties to the treaty.)
It is arguable that the Secretary General could, on his own initiative, waive the UN’s right to have the visa issued. He could point to the fact that the Security Council, in referring the Darfur situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2005, “urge[d] all States and concerned regional and other international organizations to cooperate fully” with the Court. However, it is understandable that the Secretary General would be reluctant to do so without the support of the General Assembly. It was the General Assembly that authorized the UN Secretary General to conclude the treaty and it is the General Assembly that can authorize the Secretary General to waive, or suspend, the US obligation, under Sections 11 & 13 of the Headquarters Agreement, to facilitate al Bashir’s travel to Headquarters.
The General Assembly could authorize the Secretary General to waive the US obligation by a majority vote of those Member States present and voting. (This matter is not listed in the Charter as an “important question” under art. 18(2), which would require a 2/3 majority vote among those present and voting.) Of the 193 UN Member States, 122 are parties to the ICC Statute. In addition, other states that are not parties to the ICC Statute supported the Security Council referral of the situation in Darfur to the ICC. It is also likely that a number of states would abstain in such a vote, bringing down the number of votes required to achieve a majority (abstaining states are not counted as among the states “present and voting”).
Allowing the US to deny a visa to this one individual in these very narrow circumstances would in no way restrict Sudan’s ability to address the Assembly. The Assembly could even decide to permit Mr. Bashir to appear by video telecast from Khartoum. The General Assembly is, after all, the master of its own procedure. But the one thing the General Assembly must do is to prevent access by an individual who is wanted by the ICC on charges of genocide and other international crimes, and who is refusing to cooperate with the Court.
We should of course be mindful that, owing to his failure to appear before the Court, the trial phase of his case has not yet begun, and there has thus been no opportunity for the charges against him to be proven or disproven. I would not recommend the extraordinary step of allowing the US to block a Head of State from participating in the General Debate merely on the basis of unproven criminal charges were that Head of State cooperating with the ICC. As such, allowing the US to deny a visa in the instant case would not constitute a worrying precedent. The circumstances are extremely narrow (outstanding ICC arrest warrants for genocide and other international crimes, and a complete refusal to cooperate by the suspect), and the decision to waive or suspend would be left to the Assembly on a case by case basis.
According to Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations, one of the principal purposes of the organization is “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” At last year’s general debate, the overwhelming majority of world leaders addressing the Assembly underscored the importance of the UN’s human rights work.
On Sunday, Mr. Bashir announced that he has booked his flight to New York and that he fully intends to participate in the General Debate. The General Assembly must act now to uphold its commitment to the rule of law and to the fundamental purposes of the organization as set forth in the Charter.