Omar al-Bashir and the UN General Assembly: An Awkward Guest to Invite

The 70th Session of the UN General Assembly, scheduled to open September 15th in New York, represents the fruits of a long and arduous journey world powers have made to advance peace and limit the outbreak of war. Yet the meeting of world leaders has the potential to cause a serious headache for American policymakers. Depending on the guest list, American officials may be forced to grant a visa to one of the most infamous fugitives in the world, a man accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of orchestrating a host of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In most cases such a fugitive would be on Interpol’s list of wanted criminals and wouldn’t dare apply for a visa to the United States. However because he is a head of state, Omar al-Bashir is only subject to arrest in countries that are parties to the Rome Statute (and even then his detention is not a sure bet, as illustrated by the government of South Africa’s shameless actions earlier this summer). While the U.S. isn’t part of the ICC, it has nevertheless been vocal about Sudan’s abysmal human rights record. Yet because of a headquarters agreement between the UN and the U.S., the American government must issue travel visas to persons who intend to travel strictly for UN business, regardless of any objections the State Department may have.

Should Omar al-Bashir seek to attend the opening ceremony of the General Assembly, the Obama administration would be put in an uncomfortable position. Under international law, it would be obligated to comply with al-Bashir’s visa request, yet hosting an accused war criminal would severely undermine the West’s efforts to bring the fugitive to justice, and would only cement al-Bashir’s legitimacy back home.

While al-Bashir may very well decide to obtain a visa, he would still need to deal with a chorus of opposition once he arrives. The embattled dictator has few allies on the international stage willing to publicly back him on key issues, ranging from the territorial disputes with South Sudan to its campaign in Darfur. Moreover, given the widespread international opprobrium his visit to South Africa’s African Union (AU) summit spurred, a trip to a world city like New York would incite a momentous backlash from civil society organizations of all stripes. While statesmen-like, his presence at the UN would invite more bad press than the autocrat would want.

It is unlikely that the dictator will make the trip. In 2013, al-Bashir threatened to attend the General Assembly repeatedly only to scuttle his travel plans. Nevertheless, the U.S. must revise its headquarters agreement with the UN and takes step to get behind the ICC if it genuinely seeks to advance a comprehensive human rights agenda.