Immunity of Mission Premises, Travel Restrictions on Diplomatic Staff Debated, as Sixth Committee Takes Up Host Country Report

GA/L/3561
2 November 2017
Seventy-second Session, 27th Meeting (AM)

Immunity of Mission Premises, Travel Restrictions on Diplomatic Staff Debated, as Sixth Committee Takes Up Host Country Report

The committee charged with providing an open forum for delegations to bring their concerns about relations between the United States as host country and the United Nations community had tackled matters of immunities awarded to mission premises and travel restrictions on diplomatic staff, its Chair told the Sixth Committee (Legal) today, as it took up that body’s report.

Introducing the report (document A/72/26), Kornelios Korneliou (Cyprus), Chair of the Committee on Relations with the Host Country, noted that the recommendations and conclusions contained new language on privileges and immunities applicable to the premises of the permanent missions to the United Nations.

Concerns that delegations brought before the Host Country Committee ranged from those in connection with the implementation of the Headquarters Agreement between the United Nations and the United States, and the question of privileges and immunities, security of missions and the safety of their personnel.  Also discussed were the issuance of entry visas and their timeliness, and host country travel regulations and restrictions, as well as banking issues.

In the ensuing debate, the Russian Federation’s delegate called attention to “an unprecedented violation” by the host country of the immunity of mission premises.  At the end of December 2016, a Long Island premise that had been part of the Russian Permanent Representation to the United Nations was seized by United States authorities.  After decades of granting the facility relevant immunities, the host country had prohibited access to it last year without any justification, he said, noting repeated refusals, including a negative response to the request to hold the annual Day of Victory celebrations in May of this year.

Cuba’s representative, also voicing concerns about the host country’s policies, said that the travel policy restricting the movement of Cuban diplomats and international officials was unjust, selective, discriminatory and politically motivated.  Noting that Cuban staff were not allowed to leave a 25‑mile radius area measured from Columbus Circle, he pointed out the host country continued to not take tangible steps to get rid of the unjustifiable measure.  That limit was arbitrary and went against the general rule of the free circulation of diplomats.

While underscoring that the United States was proud to serve as host country to the United Nations, its representative said that his Government was not required to permit travel to other parts of the country unless diplomats were doing so for official United Nations meetings and business.  He also emphasized that the property referred to by the Russian Federation did not fall within United States obligations under the Headquarters Agreement or the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.  Highlighting his country’s relationship with the diverse and dynamic diplomatic community at the United Nations, he also noted that in the current year, 4,400 visas had been issued to its members.

Nicaragua’s representative, nonetheless, emphasized the need for respect for diplomatic properties, which was crucial for the functioning of diplomatic missions.  Dialogue and respect were essential as well, she said, calling on the host country to meet all obligations under international law.

Also speaking today were representatives of Sudan, Syria, Bangladesh, Iran, China and Belarus, as well as the European Union.

The representative of the Russian Federation spoke in exercise of the right of reply.

The Sixth Committee will next meet at 10 a.m. on Friday, 3 November to hear the reports of the Working Group on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism, and the Working Group on the scope and application of universal jurisdiction.

Introduction to Report of Host Country Committee

KORNELIOS KORNELIOU (Cyprus), Chair of the Committee on Relations with the Host Country, introduced that body’s report (document A/72/26), noting that it contained four chapters that covered a range of topics, including organization of the work of the Committee, summary of its discussions during the reporting period and its recommendations and conclusions.  The Host Country Committee continued to provide an open environment where members and interested delegations, participating as observers, could follow its work and raise any concerns that fell within its domain.

The Committee, he added, was a forum where discussions could take place in a constructive manner and within the framework of international law, including the Agreement between the United Nations and the United States of America regarding the Headquarters of the United Nations.  During the reporting period, issues raised included those in connection with the implementation of the Headquarters Agreement and the question of privileges and immunities, security of missions and the safety of their personnel, issuance of entry visas and their timeliness, and host country travel regulations, as well as banking issues.

The Committee anticipated that such issues would be duly addressed in accordance with the applicable international law and in a spirit of cooperation, he continued.  Noting that the recommendations and conclusions in the report contained new language on privileges and immunities applicable to the premises of the permanent missions to the United Nations, he thanked the members of the Committee, the Host Country Affairs Section of the United States Mission and the New York City Mayor’s Office for International Affairs.

Statements

ERIC CHABOUREAU, European Union delegation, thanked the Committee on Relations with the Host Country for its report.  He also expressed appreciation towards the United States for its important service to the United Nations community in fulfilment of its responsibilities as host country under the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations and the Headquarters Agreement.

The report demonstrated that the Committee continued to provide an important forum in which to raise issues concerning the relationship between the host country and the United Nations community, he said.  Such issues, although practical in nature, went to the heart of preserving the legal regime that defined the status of the United Nations, and outlined the rights and obligations of diplomatic agents.  He further expressed appreciation for the friendly spirit in which the Committee conducted its work.

MAXIM V. MUSIKHIN (Russian Federation) said that the last cycle of the Committee’s work had witnessed an unprecedented violation by the host country of its obligations; specifically, a serious violation of the immunity of premises.  At the end of December 2016, there had been a de facto seizure by the host country authorities of premises in Long Island.  The rights to that property belonged to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics since 1953.  In 1994, it had been re‑registered to the Russian Federation.  The property was part of the Russian Permanent Representation to the United Nations and was used as a residence for staff.  For decades the United States authorities had granted the facility relevant immunities.  However, in December 2016, the United States State Department had made an announcement to the Permanent Representation prohibiting access, saying that the property could no longer be used for diplomatic purposes.

The State Department did not give any justification other than a reference to local legislation, he continued, adding that it had authorized that the building could be visited with written consent.  Despite requesting 20 times for that access, the State Department had refused each time without any reasons or explanations as to when such a visit could take place.  The host country bore responsibility for any damage that happened to the premises during the illicit restriction.  Furthermore, the Permanent Representation of the Russian Federation had for many years held a yearly event in May at that property to celebrate the Day of Victory, but it had received a negative response to the request to hold that event [this year].

The arbitrary nature and discriminatory approach of the host country had led to the deterioration of relations, he said.  His delegation had undertaken goodwill measures to encourage the host country to return to upholding its international obligations.  However, those unprecedented actions were continuing, despite the Host Country Committee urging the host State to get rid of those restrictions.  The host country must also guarantee that such violations would not be repeated in the future.  Otherwise it was setting a dangerous precedent, he said, expressing gratitude to the Chair of the Host Committee for his active mediation efforts.

ELSADIG ALI SAYED AHMED (Sudan) said that it was well‑known that the Headquarters Agreement and the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities were the mainstay of discussions for the issues of that Committee.  Respect of those instruments was of paramount importance due to the rights and obligations spelt out therein.  He expressed his appreciation for the host country, and said he hoped it would settle the issues noted in the report, including those by the Russian Federation regarding its property.  In the meantime, according to the Headquarters Agreement and other relevant law instruments, the property of Permanent Missions to the United Nations should enjoy the same inviolability as the premises of embassies.  He noted that his delegation had suffered regarding the delay in visa issuance and entry, as well as the delay of visa renewal.  It was one of the most important issues that the host country should address urgently.

AMMAR AL ARSAN (Syria), while noting efforts made by the host country in resolving issues, and despite some progress, said his delegation was still facing obstacles, particularly with regards to the closing of personal bank accounts in some New York banks.  The reasons given ranged from so‑called United States sanctions against Syria, to requests of clarification made by the United States Treasury.  In addition, the host country must also review mechanisms granting and renewing entry visas, he said, calling for a cooperative and flexible spirit.  Furthermore, noting the refusal to grant work permits to the family members of Syrian diplomats, he said that sanctions against Syria did not cover Syrian diplomats or their families in New York.  He also expressed support for the Russian Federation delegation in the matter of the violation of immunity of its premises.

INDIRA GUARDIA GONZALEZ (Cuba) said that, as a member of the Host Country Committee, she had worked hard and had responded in a timely way to all questions that arose between Member States and the host country.  The policy of restriction of movement of Cuban diplomats and international officials and those who worked for the Organization was unjust, selective, discriminatory and politically motivated.  It was also in open violation of the obligations of the host country contained in the Headquarters Agreement, and the rules of diplomatic law.  The host country continued to not take tangible steps to get rid of the unjustifiable measure that stopped Cuban staff from leaving the area of a 25‑mile radius measured from Columbus Circle.  That limit was arbitrary and unjustifiable, and ran counter to the general rule of the free circulation of diplomats, and should be removed immediately.  Some of the concerns of Member States persisted and were repeated year after year.  The host country had the obligation to adopt all relevant measures within its reach.

MOHAMMAD HUMAYUN KABIR (Bangladesh), expressing appreciation to the host country for the logistical support provided during the General Assembly high‑level debate, noted the reported violations.  Observations of privileges and immunities were premised on legal grounds, he said, voicing hope that the Host Country Committee would consider all the concerns raised, and work in cooperation with the host country to resolve those issues.  Underscoring the importance of timely visa issuance for high‑level officials from capitals, he also acknowledged the outstanding concern regarding certain banks that allowed diplomats to open bank accounts on different pretexts.

ALI NASIMFAR (Iran) said that he regretted that the host country had not been able to pay heed to the General Assembly’s call regarding both its travel restrictions it had imposed on the staff of certain Missions, and its discriminatory regulations, including the issuance of one‑time entry visas, which hindered the well‑functioning of the Missions.  It was important that the host country made the necessary readjustments.  He also expressed concern over the application of discriminatory secondary screening procedures on diplomats from certain nationalities in airports during the journey to and from New York, which undermined the respect and dignity of State representatives and the diplomatic community.  The report of the Host Country Committee urged the host country to address alleged violations pertaining to the diplomatic premises of a Permanent Mission and to remove any restrictions that were inconsistent with those privileges and immunities.

LI YONGSHENG (China) said that, as a member of the Host Country Committee, he attached great importance to its work, and remained committed to playing an active and constructive role to make it a bridge between the host country and the Permanent Missions for the proper handling of host country‑related matters.  He also hoped that the host country would perform its duties in earnest, further strengthen its coordination and cooperation with the Missions and provide full support for the proper functioning of the Missions and the enjoyment of privileges, immunities and facilities by the Missions and their personnel.

ALINA JULIA ARGÜELLO GONZÁLEZ (Nicaragua) said that respect for diplomatic properties was crucial for the work of diplomatic missions, as was due respect by the host country for the Headquarters Agreement.  The host country should meet all obligations under international law.  She also underscored her support for dialogue and respect within the context of international law to contribute to the appropriate maintenance of diplomatic relations.

RUSLAN VARANKOV (Belarus) said that upholding centuries‑old obligations on diplomatic immunities was important for maintaining international order.  Those diplomatic courtesies were codified in the Vienna Convention.  The de facto removal of property from the Russian Federation’s Permanent Representation to the United Nations and withdrawing its immunities by blocking access violated not only international law, but also United States domestic law in terms of guaranteeing property rights.  Recalling that his delegation had participated in celebrating the shared holiday of Day of Victory at that property, he noted that it was also the official residence of various mission staff.  Such violations set a negative precedent; no mission was safe from similar actions.  Insisting that those restrictions be removed swiftly, he stressed that bilateral issues must be dealt with on a bilateral basis.

MARK A. SIMONOFF (United States) said that his country was proud to serve as host country to the United Nations.  The Host Country Committee was a valuable forum and its meetings provided the United States with the opportunity to listen to, understand and address the concerns of the large, diverse and dynamic diplomatic community of the United Nations.  He also underscored that he greatly valued the cooperation and the constructive spirit of the Host Country Committee members in their work, and the assistance provided by the United Nations Secretariat.  The Host Country Section of the United States Mission had worked hard to assist Member States over the course of the year.  Between 1 January and 1 November 2017, more than 4,400 visas had been issued to members of the United Nations diplomatic community, he said, adding that he looked forward to continued collaboration and positive interactions with all United Nations community colleagues.

He went on to say that the property referred to by the Russian Federation did not fall within United States obligations under the Headquarters Agreement or the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.  The United States had never considered that property to be part of the premises of that Mission.  Mission premises were a narrowly defined term in the relevant article of the Vienna Convention.  Premises away from the Mission were exceptional under article 12 of the Vienna Convention.  The United States did not give express consent to the establishment of offices in Upper Brookville [New York].  Although it was owned by the Russian Federation, that did not make it part of the premises of its Mission.  That matter should be left to the United States and the Russian Federation to handle bilaterally to reach a mutually satisfactory solution.

Some delegations had raised the matter of non‑official or private travel, he continued.  Those restrictions did not violate the Headquarters Agreement, nor did they interfere with travel for official business.  The United States was not required to permit those individuals to travel to other parts of the country unless they were doing so for official United Nations meetings and business.  Unofficial or recreational travel was not required by the Headquarters Agreement or any other international agreement.

Right of Reply

The representative of the Russian Federation, speaking in exercise of the right of reply, said that the granting of privileges and immunities to the premises of the Permanent Representation of the Russian Federation in Upper Brookville had been acknowledged in the note that the State Department of the United States had issued on 29 December 2016.  Reading that note, he quoted it as saying that the property would not enjoy any immunities or privileges previously made available to the premises.

Thus, he continued, the fact that the property did enjoy privileges and immunities when illegal restrictions were placed on it was directly acknowledged in that note.  The property, originally registered to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, had become part of the Russian Federation’s property in 1994, as it was the continuer State of the Soviet Union.  The host State was well aware of that, and protocol events had been conducted there.  As to the United States delegate’s assertion that it was far away from the Mission, that argument looked rather odd; the host State had known of that premise since 1953 and had not objected to the use of the property for service purposes.  Any attempt by the United States delegation to deny status to the property was only justification of its illicit activities.

For information media. Not an official record.