This week, representatives of all 193 United Nations member states will gather for the annual General Assembly in New York. Usually, the process by which governments gain “credentials” – the right for their representatives to attend and speak on behalf of their countries – is a straightforward affair. However, at this year’s General Assembly, Afghanistan and Myanmar, both in the throes of violent crises, may have competing claims over who can legitimately represent the sovereign will of each nation.
The body tasked with deciding between these claims is the General Assembly’s Credentials Committee – a rotating group of nine states elected on the first day of every General Assembly – whose previous decisions have been unpredictable and riven by great power politics. However, the Committee’s final decision will resonate in Kabul and Yangon and have clear implications for the obligations of governments looking to join the global club of nations.
Unlike in Afghanistan, a popular and viable opposition to military rule has emerged in Myanmar.
Following a February 1 military coup, which ended a six-year quasi-democratic experiment, the general population’s rejection of the military putsch was swift and decisive, with almost daily protests, strikes, and boycotts, as well as the formation of an alternative National Unity Government (NUG) comprised of elected parliamentarians and civil society leaders.
The Myanmar junta’s suppression of this opposition has and continues to be brutal. It has unleashed counter-insurgency tactics – long-honed in the country’s ethnic civil wars – onto the streets of Yangon and Mandalay and villages in Myanmar’s central regions that have traditionally seen no armed conflict. The death toll of this vicious campaign stands at more than 1,000 and is rising daily, with the U.N. special rapporteur for Myanmar describing the military’s actions as likely meeting the legal threshold for crimes against humanity.
Despite largely hailing from a government that had defended the military’s rampant human rights abuses, the NUG recently delegated jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute atrocities dating back to 2002. It has also acknowledged the rights of the Rohingya ethnic minority and the atrocity crimes they faced at the hands of the military, which Fortify Rights, a U.N. fact-finding mission, and others have identified as genocide.
The NUG is not perfect, and could still do more to improve the inclusivity of its administration, but it is demonstrating its intention to behave like a responsible member of the international community. This fact has not been lost on other states. Over the past four months, NUG ministers have met with government representatives from the U.S., U.K., France, and Japan, among other nations.
The ace in the NUG’s pocket, when it comes to gaining credentials ahead of the junta, is that Myanmar’s current U.N. representative, Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, has pledged his allegiance to the democratic movement. In a sign of the brewing skirmish over credentials, the junta has – unsuccessfully, so far – tried to replace the diplomat. Last month the dispute took a darker turn, when an assassination plot against the ambassador was foiled by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. The junta quickly denied any involvement, but it’s clear they won’t give up the battle for recognition without a fight.
Despite having dealt with previous credentials disputes, no coherent rules or guiding principles have emerged for the U.N. Credentials Committee to draw upon. In this vacuum, great power politics have generally determined who is eventually accredited, with the U.S., China, and Russia traditionally playing pivotal roles on the committee.
If the Myanmar junta and NUG both make claims for credentials as expected, the committee will have three options before them. They could reject all proposed candidates, leaving Myanmar without representation. They could defer a decision, meaning that Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun could remain provisionally in place. Or they could decide to accept the credentials of one candidate over another – effectively making a judgement on the legitimacy of that candidate and their sponsoring government. The committee’s decision will then go to the General Assembly where it can be ratified or rejected, with the General Assembly potentially being forced to vote on who to accredit.
The outcome will not only decide who gets to speak at U.N. headquarters, but could also influence accreditation within the entire U.N. system, including at the International Court of Justice, where Myanmar faces a genocide case.
The U.N.’s decision may also influence other governments’ thinking on who to recognize bilaterally, with implications for the presence of embassies and diplomats, humanitarian aid, and access to foreign exchange reserves.
This is an important decision, and it is remiss of the U.N. and its member states not to have clearer rules in place to deal with credentials disputes. The General Assembly, led by its president, should urgently develop guidance on how to handle credentials disputes in a way that aligns with the U.N.’s purposes and principles.
Some may argue that it’s better to engage, and not isolate, “bad actors” such as the Myanmar junta, with a view to changing their behavior. With already accredited bad actors, this “constructive” approach has largely failed, instead providing a stage for the crass denial of atrocities.
Regardless, to provide accreditation to an unlawful, criminal regime at the U.N. is a dangerous proposition. It would sanction undemocratic overthrows of governments as somehow acceptable. Not to mention the fact that should the Myanmar junta be accredited at the U.N., it will signal international indifference for its past, present, and future crimes, and the crimes of similarly abusive regimes. This will spell disaster for the people of Myanmar. It is this very indifference that continues to embolden the junta to violate fundamental rights with abandon.
What the Myanmar people need, now more than ever, are legitimate representatives who can genuinely represent their interests and help to bring human rights abusers to account. U.N. member states can and should ensure that outcome.