The United Nations General Assembly will soon make a decision that will affect the lives of 55 million people in Myanmar and could influence the fate of their nation as it stands at a crucial crossroad.
This week, as the 77th session of the Assembly opens, its Credentials Committee will deliberate on who represents Myanmar at the UN: the democratic National Unity Government (NUG), elected by a landslide in November 2020, or the military junta that mounted a failed and unconstitutional coup 18 months ago.
The Credentials Committee’s decision determines which of the two parties will represent Myanmar not just in the Assembly but also across the UN system, including in key bodies such as the Human Rights Council.
It seems like a no-brainer, but in classic UN style, it isn’t.
Russia and China, who sell arms to Myanmar, may attempt to protect the junta. They, like the United States, sit permanently on the nine-member Credentials Committee, which recommends who is accredited to the General Assembly membership of 193 countries, for approval in December. (The committee’s new members are Angola, Austria, Guyana, Maldives, Uruguay and Zambia, according to a source familiar with the makeup.)
Last year, the Assembly, on recommendation of the previous composition of the Credentials Committee, deferred its decision, which left the incumbent Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, who represents the NUG, in his seat. He told PassBlue recently that he planned to stay there.
Last year’s decision was a clear rejection of the junta’s credentials and effectively endorsed the NUG representative. But because the endorsement of the NUG ambassador was not explicit, it led to confusion across the UN system.
So while Kyaw Moe Tun represents Myanmar in the Assembly, at the International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest judicial organ, the junta has acted for Myanmar during hearings in February in the case being brought by Gambia under the Genocide Convention.
Between these two positions sit the Human Rights Council, the World Health Assembly, the International Labor Organization and the General Conference of Unesco, who have left Myanmar’s seat empty amid this perceived controversy.
These inconsistencies at the diplomatic level have led to anomalies on the ground, where UN humanitarian principles such as impartiality are being violated while agencies like the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) and Unicef have publicly endorsed the junta.
These anomalies can be sorted out easily.
General Assembly Resolution 396 (V) of 1950 states that when the question of a country’s representation at the UN “becomes the subject of controversy . . . the attitude adopted by the General Assembly . . . should be taken into account” by other UN bodies.
The attitude of the Assembly is perfectly obvious: not only has it approved the NUG Ambassador but in a resolution adopted overwhelmingly in June 2021, the Assembly called on the military junta to “respect the will of the people as freely expressed by the results of the general election” and to allow “a sustained democratic transition.”
As the Myanmar Accountability Project (MAP) outlined in a legal opinion published before last year’s credentials’ decision and that was endorsed by leading international law experts, historical precedent in the UN weighs heavily toward the NUG representative being accepted again and the junta again being rejected.
Since the early 1990s, when there have been competing credentials claims, the Assembly has favored those governments with strong democratic mandates and a demonstrable adherence to human-rights norms. On those two yardsticks, the NUG beats the junta without question.
The issue of “effective territorial control” has been less of a determinant, but even there, it’s clear that the NUG and its affiliated armed groups have control over a larger area of Myanmar than the leaders of the failed coup.
So here’s what we’re asking: That the Assembly give not just tacit acceptance to the NUG ambassador but also accept explicitly his credentials and clarify its decision that it supports the NUG’s representatives throughout the UN system.
If the decision is deferred again, which we would deplore, this should be done at least “on the understanding that the current incumbent remains in place with all the rights and privileges as all the others.” We ask that this language, which has been used in previous deferrals, be included either in the report of the Credentials Committee or the Assembly resolution adopting its recommendations.
We urge the UN Office of Legal Affairs to provide clear guidance — based on Resolution 396 (V) — that the NUG be allowed to represent Myanmar in all UN bodies. UN member states should request guidance on this from the UN legal affairs office, given the continuing confusion.
Critically, the Human Rights Council should allow the NUG to attend all its “interactive dialogues” on Myanmar and to adopt the pending recommendations of Myanmar’s Universal Periodic Review, which have not been adopted.
Other UN bodies must follow suit and allow the NUG to represent Myanmar.
The International Court of Justice should deal only with agents of the NUG in its case with Gambia.
State parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court should refer the situation in Myanmar to the court and the ICC prosecutor should accept the NUG declaration to the court and launch an investigation, as he has with Ukraine.
The General Assembly should also adopt a resolution — as it has done in the past, when it endorsed democratic governments in Haiti and Honduras — making clear that the NUG is the only government that member states and the UN should engage with.
The case for action is compelling.
More than 2,000 people have been killed since the coup, according to conservative estimates; 15,000 have been detained or disappeared; more than 1.2 million have been displaced; and 14 million need immediate humanitarian assistance.
A deferral by the Assembly on Myanmar’s credentials will compound the international community’s mixed messages. By contrast, a firm decision to accept the NUG will put the generals on notice.
With the Security Council neutralized by Russia and China on Myanmar, we urge the Assembly to accept the credentials of the NUG and to resolve the chaos of Myanmar’s UN representation.
This will send a powerful signal to the people of Myanmar that the community of nations stands with them.
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.
Damian Lilly, a Briton, is an independent consultant who until recently was based in Myanmar. He has worked with the UN for the last 15 years and is a member of the Myanmar Accountability Project (MAP).