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ICP Asked IPU About US Visa Restrictions, Churkin Says US Shot Self in Foot

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, September 2 -- When Inter-Parliamentary Union's Secretary General and President held a press conference in the UN Press Briefing Room on August 28, Inner City Press on behalf of the Free UN Coalition for Access asked them about the visa restrictions imposed by the US on Russian Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko, as a matter of access, and host country relations. Video here, and embedded below.

  In fact, Matviyenko did appear for the IPU meeting, albeit on a large video screen. On September 2, Russia's Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin cited this video appearance as proof that the US had shot itself in the foot with its visa restrictions.

  Churkin said, "We think the United States interpreted its prerogative as a host country in a very narrow  way. It was not an event which was completely divorced from the United Nations. It was  not an accident that they held the event in the United Nations.... I think they, in propaganda terms, they shot themselves in the foot with this decision. Anyway, Valentina Matviyenko was speaking from the big screen to the General Assembly, so her message was delivered."

  On August 28 it was said there would be a reference to Russia's exclusion in the outcome document, UN Video here, from Minute 25. But in fact there was not, see here. On September 2, the IPU canceled its scheduled press conference at 1:30 pm.

  Back on August 28, IPU Secretary General Martin Chongong told Inner City Press:

"When it comes to the ability for members of parliament to attend the IPU conference, of course we want to, the ideal situation would be for every parliament to be able to attend the IPU conference here without any restrictions. We’re aware of possible difficulties in the past, when we started to organize these meetings, and we have been in consultations with various authorities, including in the US, and we have been told that the UN visa processing, process was very long, and we encouraged to ask possible participants to apply well in advance for those visas. I would think that, we have not had any particular visa difficulty being brought to our attention apart from the one you’re referring to, the Russian Speaker.
"It is only this morning that we have learned officially that she’s not coming. Up until this day we were expecting that she was coming. When we were coming to this press conference we saw a message from her that she will not be attending. Of course, we regret the fact, because we think that this is a forum where all the members of Parliament, true to the nature of democracy, could exercise their freedom of expression and bring to the floor what the issues are.
"We have yet to have the details of the decision taken for her not to participate, what are the conditions that were supposedly imposed by the American administration on her for participation in this meeting, so if I might answer your question, but I would not like to comment on an interpretation of a decision that I have not seen, and I have not seen that decision by the Americans.
Inner City Press asked, Would you ever think of doing a meeting in another country if in fact the parliamentarians can't attend in this country?

A: We have a principle in the IPU, when it comes to statutory meetings, that we cannot hold meetings in countries that do not guarantee access to all invited participants. But this one is a special meeting that we’re holding. It’s not a statutory meeting of the inter-parliamentary union. It’s an exceptional meeting. And it is taking place here, in New York, primarily because it is here that history is going to be made a few weeks down the road with the new SDGs being adopted by the summit of heads of state. We are saying that parliament should be there when this major decision is taken, and that is why we have this meeting here, in New York. But normally we would want, and we’ve had to cancel meetings, statutory meetings of the IPU, when we did not receive guarantees for all participants, all invited parties to attend.

I want to point out to you that we have received confirmation from the speaker of the Russian upper house of parliament that she will be attending the next IPU assembly in Geneva in October. I do not anticipate any problems regarding her participation. In fact, we look forward to it.

 IPU President Saber Chowdhury told Inner City Press / FUNCA:

"Just quickly, you asked the question as to the choice of the venue in New York. And, if I can just invite your attention to the GA resolution 68/272 that was taken in 19th of May. And I’ll just read out very briefly. This is from the GA resolution. It says,

'Welcomes the preparations currently under way for the organization of the Fourth World Conference of Speakers of Parliament, in 2015, and encourages the conduct of these preparations in close cooperation with the United Nations, with a view to holding the Conference at United Nations Headquarters in New York as part of the series of high-level meetings in 2015, and maximizing political support for the outcome of the summit on the post-2015 development agenda.'

"So this also sort of influenced our choice of New York, because we were encouraged by a decision that was taken by the General Assembly. And we of course read that in good faith and accept that in good faith and make our arrangements."

  This is not an isolated case. (But what *is* also a trend is the old UN Correspondents Association demanding a set-aside first question - and then not asking about access issues. We'll have more on this. FUNCA opposes set-aside first questions, including for this reasons.)

For years, the US has restricted to within 25 miles of New York City not only Cuban diplomats but also UN staff members who are Cuban nationals. Now amid the thaw in US-Cuba relations, on August 4 Inner City Press asked the UN's deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq about it:

Inner City Press: On the host country agreement, I wanted to ask whether, given the new re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, whether Cuban nationals who work for the UN are still subject to a 25-mile restriction outside of New York.

Deputy Spokesman Haq:  Again, that’s a question to ask the US authorities.  This is not a restriction that is imposed by the United Nations.  It’s a question of the bilateral relations between those two countries.

Inner City Press:  Right.  But given the UN speaks up about restrictions on travel on its staff in countries likes Sudan and don’t ask Sudan if they’re restricting our staff, I’m asking you are UN staff members who are nationals of Cuba still restricted within 25 miles, as a UN question?

Deputy Spokesman Haq:  No, that’s a question actually of US policy.  Does the US policy make that restriction?  Please ask the US Government on that.  That’s not something that’s put upon anyone by us.

  Again, this misses the point. When Sudan or other countries imposes restrictions on the movement of UN staff, the UN (sometimes) speaks up. To say, ask the country imposing the restriction on UN staff makes no sense, or is craven. We'll have more on this.

 Back on July 1, on the day the US' Jeffrey DeLaurentis handed President Barack Obama's letter to Raul Castro, setting July 20 for the re-opening of embassies, Inner City Press asked a Cuban diplomat in New York if the restrictions on him, and on Cuban UN staff, to stay within 25 miles of Columbus Circle would remain in place.

  Yes, was the reply, with a shaking of the head. How this is legal under the Host Country Agreement between the US and UN is not clear. But the UN says nothing about it.

  Later on July 1, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement welcoming the move, but saying nothing about the US' restrictions not only on Cuban diplomats but also on UN staff of Cuban nationality, who work for Ban. Ah, leadership. Ban said (with the bracketed word "more" crossed out) --

"The Secretary-General welcomes the announcement today that Cuba and the United States will reopen embassies in Havana and Washington, D.C.. The restoration of diplomatic ties is an important step on the path toward the normalization of relations.

"In keeping with the principles of its founding Charter, the United Nations supports efforts to promote [more] harmonious and good neighbourly relations among States. The Secretary-General hopes that this historic step will benefit the peoples of both countries."

  Back on April 1 as talks continued between Cuba and the US, including in Havana on telecommunications, Inner City Press on April 1 asked the UN to confirm that Cuban nationals who are UN staff members are for now required to seek prior approval before venturing more than 25 miles from Columbus Circle in Manhattan.

  While the UN openly complains when restricted in certain other countries, this restriction it refuses to confirm or discuss. From the UN's April 1 transcript:

Inner City Press: I wanted to ask you about UN staff's ability to travel more than 25 miles outside of New York... I'd like you to comment on whether Cuban staff, i.e., employed by the UN, but from Cuba, are subject to that restriction, and what the Secretariat has done either historically or recently to oppose that, and your position on the legality of the host country limiting UN staff to a certain distance from Manhattan. 

Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq:  As you know, there's a Convention on the privileges and immunities of UN and associated staff, so I would just refer to you that.  So for any problems that we have in any of the countries where we operate, we take them up with the local authorities, and in this case, it would also be an issue for the Host Country Committee.

Inner City Press:  Right, but can we either now or later today just get an answer from the UN, maybe it's OHRM or OLA, are you aware, because I am, of restrictions imposed by the host country on UN staff members from particular countries, and what's your position on that?  [overlapping talking]

Deputy Spokesman Haq:  Like I said, our position is in line with the Convention on the privileges and immunities of the United Nations and associated staff.  So we have that as a clear point.  And then if we have concerns with any countries, we take them up at different levels.  And like I said, in this case, sometimes there would be issues for the Host Country Committee and we'd take it up there.

Inner City Press:  I'm just wondering, can the UN not say whether it has staff members based here in New York who are restricted from traveling?

Deputy Spokesman:  Whenever we have any concerns, we take them up with the authorities as need be, including with the Host Country Committee. 

   Back on March 26 Inner City Press asked US State Department spokesperson Jeff Rathke about US limitations on Cuban diplomats. From the State Department transcript:

Inner City Press:  Cuba has complained that its diplomats accredited to the UN in New York are not allowed to go more than 25 miles outside of the city or from Columbus Circle.  And I wanted to know whether this restriction is one of the things that’s being negotiated.  Is it considered being lifted?  Is it – where does it stand, and how do – and what’s the U.S. – given that generally people accredited to the UN can travel freely, how does the U.S. justify it?
MR. RATHKE:  Well, we’ve said from the very start of our rounds of talks with the Cuban Government that one of the topics we want to discuss is the ability of American diplomats in Cuba to move around freely and, of course, the Cubans have a similar concern.  I’m not going to get into the state of those discussions, but that’s clearly a topic that we’ve been talking about over the last few rounds.

  Rathke went on to say it is part of the negotiations.

 Back on March 13, after Cuba came out in strong defense of Venezuela after US President Obama's executive order, the US was disappointed but not surprised, a senior State Department official told reporters on a background call.

   Inner City Press wondered from the UN, what of the US' requirement that Cuban diplomats -- and even Cuban UN staff members -- must stay without 25 miles of Columbus Circle in Manhattan?

  Will that restriction, which seems contrary to the Host Country Agreement between the US and UN and the Vienna Conventions, be removed?

   Currently in charge of the US' “interest section” is Jeffrey Delaurentis, formerly with the US Mission to the UN. What does he say about the 25 mile restriction? And how might he fare in a nomination process in the US Senate? Watch this site.


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