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Sudan Leader's Visa Request Puts U.S. In Diplomatic Bind


The president of Sudan wants the U.S. to give him a visa so he can come to New York next week to attend the U.N. General Assembly. For most heads of state, no problem. But Omar al-Bashir faces arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court, accusing him of genocide and crimes against humanity in Sudan's Darfur region. So the question of whether to grant President Bashir a visa has put the U.S. in a diplomatic bind.

With us now is Colum Lynch. He covers the U.N. for The Washington Post and Foreign Policy.com. Good morning.

COLUM LYNCH: Hi, how are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. So already, American Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power has said it would be deplorable for Bashir to show up. But does the U.S. State Department have to grant him the visa, seeing as how the U.N. is on U.S. territory and it's hosting the General Assembly?

LYNCH: If you were to ask probably a State Department lawyer, or a U.N. lawyer, they would tell you, yes, the U.S. has to. I mean, there were two basic treaties, right after the creation of the U.N., that makes it pretty clear that the U.S. has an obligation as the host to allow pretty much anybody that the U.N. invites to come into the U.N., and to leave it sort of without being harassed.

There's also immunity protections, there are customary international law provides sort of immunity protections for heads of state. But the convention on immunity also provides the U.N. officials, foreign delegates coming to the U.N. immunity from, you know, investigation, prosecution, arrest. So according to those general treaties, they have to do it.

MONTAGNE: Just is there an example you think of that fits this case?

LYNCH: Well, there are a number of examples. I mean, the most famous case was when Yasser Arafat was going to come to the U.N. General Assembly in 1988. It was during the Reagan administration. And he was not terribly popular and was considered an international terrorist. And so, the United States tried to block him. And there is sort of U.S. legislation, which allows the Americans to block individuals from coming to the U.N., if there is a justifiable national security reason.

So they made that argument, didn't go over well at the U.N., and the U.N. decided to convene its General Assembly session in Geneva. So it turned out to be, I think, a bit of a political, you know, setback for the U.S. internationally, though it might not have been terribly unpopular domestically. And it turned out to be something of a kind of diplomatic coup for Arafat.

MONTAGNE: If the U.S. does he have a visa in this case, there are those that say it should arrest him on the charges he faces in The Hague. The U.S. is not a member of the International Criminal Court. How might that play out?

LYNCH: I would be surprised if they did it. First of all, if you go back to the resolution that created the International Criminal Court, it doesn't have any provisions which require states to arrest or surrender or extradite those wanted by the International Criminal Court. And so, there's no legal obligation on the United States to do so. So I'd be surprised if they did it.

Maybe it might be popular among some of the court's strongest supporters. But I think it would create a lot of sort of diplomatic backlash against the U.S. for the first time, I think, denying, you know, access by a head of state. Arafat, by the way, in '88 was not a head of state.

MONTAGNE: Right, of course.

The General Assembly does meet just early next week. So, what do you think? Will he get the visa?

LYNCH: I think they U.S. will do everything they can to convince the Bashir not to come. But he just may come and it's going to be a really interesting story to cover.

MONTAGNE: Colum Lynch is a writer for The Washington Post and also writes Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog. Thank you very much.

LYNCH: All right. Thanks for having me, Renee.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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