The battle is on to grab the Myanmar seat at the United Nations in New York City, a hugely significant prize as the junta wages a campaign for diplomatic recognition.
Nonrecognition of the regime is crucial right now, because recognizing it would embolden its “brute force terror campaign” against the people it claims to represent, as the UN rapporteur for Myanmar has described the situation, with the junta rejecting international demands to engage in dialogue with the opposition.
The Myanmar Accountability Project (MAP), a London-based nongovernmental organization, has obtained letters sent by the Myanmar military government to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, informing him of its intention to replace the incumbent, Kyaw Moe Tun, who came out in support of the country’s civil disobedience movement, with Aung Thurein. He’s a long-serving military man who, according to his official resume, also obtained by MAP, was serving in the military at the time of the Feb. 1 coup.
The fate of these disputed claims over who will be Myanmar’s UN ambassador will be decided in the General Assembly’s Credentials Committee, which is due to meet in mid-September. Usually, the committee’s report goes to the entire Assembly for a decision in November or December.
Though the Assembly’s rules and procedures give no clear guidance to the committee on the criteria it should use in deciding over competing claims, a 1950 resolution urges that the question should be determined “in light of the Purposes and Principles of the Charter and circumstances of each case.”
There are compelling historical precedents in which Assembly members refused to recognize the credentials of regimes that seized power by force or that had egregious human-rights records.
The Assembly rejected the credentials of the apartheid government of South Africa in 1970 on the grounds that it was not representative of the South African people as a whole. It was not until 1994, with the formation of a national unity government, that this position was changed.
After the overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti in 1991, the Assembly rejected the Haitian junta’s credentials.
In Sierra Leone in 1996, after the overthrow of the popular, democratic government of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, a civil disobedience movement, or CDM, emerged, as there is in Myanmar today. The Assembly rejected the attempt by the Sierra Leonean coup leaders to grab the country’s UN seat and sided instead with the CDM by recognizing the credentials of the Kabbah government.
Significantly, since 1990, in rulings relating to Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti and Sierra Leone, the Assembly has not been persuaded that effective control of territory is a prime determinant, when other factors such as democracy and human rights come into play.
Indeed, historically the Assembly has been swayed by a party’s willingness to meet its international obligations, particularly concerning human rights, and how much it represents the will of the people, which manifestly the Myanmar junta does not.
Also critical for UN member states is that even under the terms of the military-drafted 2008 constitution, the coup was illegal and arguably illegitimate. So, all eyes are riveted now on an obscure nine-member UN committee, whose decision will have far-reaching consequences.
By tradition, Russia and China are members. They are major arms suppliers to Myanmar and have been highly effective in using their potential veto power in the Security Council to sideline discussion and actions regarding the Myanmar crisis. In the Credentials Committee, however, they have no veto power.
The United States is also traditionally a permanent member of the committee. It has led the world in condemning the coup and sanctioning its leaders and their economic interests.
MAP is urging General Assembly delegations to follow through on the logic of their June 2021 resolution in which they voted 116 in favor and only 1 (Belarus) against, to condemn the coup in the “strongest terms” and demand the “sustained democratic transition” . . . “to a fully inclusive civilian government.”
As a first step, UN member states must take no action that would be interpreted by the junta as recognition.
Secondly, they should go further and recognize the credentials of the National Unity Government, which won the November 2020 election by a landslide.
Some member states, however, fear diplomatic reprisals if they take that step. For example, the junta had been dragging its feet on granting the British ambassador-designate to Myanmar a visa, though MAP understands this was eventually granted.
If member states insist on bowing to such pressures, they should vote to defer the decision on the UN ambassador and ensure that the incumbent, Kyaw Moe Tun, is left in place.
Thereafter, as a former assistant secretary-general for legal affairs has suggested, it is essential that the UN establish consistency across the international system, providing practical, procedural methods for countries to make certain that the regime is denied opportunities to legitimize itself in other UN bodies and beyond.
Such a strategy, with robust General Assembly support, would constitute a much-needed and long-overdue statement from the international community to the Myanmar generals that the current course of brutality and intransigence is unsustainable.
Moreover, it would convey a powerful message to the civil society groups that are demanding the restoration of democracy and human rights that the vast body of world opinion is on their side.
This essay was updated on July 27 to reflect new information regarding the British ambassador-designate to Myanmar.
Chris Gunness is the director of the Myanmar Accountability Project. In 1988, he covered the 8888 Burmese uprising for the BBC and then was its UN correspondent in New York City from 1989 to 1992. In 2006, after a 25-year career in the BBC, Gunness worked in Jerusalem as director of strategic communications and advocacy for the UN in the occupied Palestinian territory.