Credentials and the Politics of Representation: What’s in it for the UN?

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The UN General Assembly 76th session raised political controversy already before all the opening speeches have been made, as the credentials of at least two states, not completely unexpectedly, have become subject to debate. In the case of Myanmar and Afghanistan new regimes have recently surged to power, whereas the previous governments still hold UN accreditation. Afghanistan´s new leaders, the Taliban, have argued that the current ambassador no longer represents Afghanistan, and have nominated their own spokesperson. In respect of Myanmar, the country has been led by a military junta ever since it seized power from the democratically elected government in a coup d’état early this year. Although the junta has fired the current representative, they have not been able to replace him with their own.

Representation in international organizations is about who is entitled to represent the state. Generally, a change of government does not raise concerns in this respect. The Credentials Committee appointed at the beginning of each regular General Assembly (GA) session therefore usually manages a more or less technical task. However, when a coup takes place, things become more complicated, as there by definition in such a case are two (or more) parties that can make a claim to be the rightful ruler. Consequently, all eyes are turned to the Committee to make a decision (although the General Assembly is formally the final decision-making body). What makes the decision of such intense attention in these two cases, is the symbolism of being represented at the UN, and hereby, acceptance as a legitimate representative to the community of states.

This is by far the first time that credentials have become an issue before the UN GA. The ‘politics of credentials’ has been particularly apparent for example when rejecting the South African credentials and in the many (failed) attempts to reject Israeli credentials. In these cases, one could argue, the question has not necessarily been about the authenticity of the representation, but rather the conduct of the states. The conduct of the Taliban and the Myanmar military has also made many (perhaps even most) participants in the debate see no other option but to condemn the new rulers and send a strong message by denying them a seat at the GA (see e.g. here, here, here, and here).

The process of issuing credentials is described in the GA Rules of Procedure, which lacks criteria to guide the decision. Practically the only official guidance derives from the 1950s, and says that such questions should be decided “in light of the Purposes and Principles of the Charter and the circumstances of each case”. This license to decide case by case, combined with some circumstances of the cases at hand, raises the question whether there are any ideal decisions to be made, with a view to the functions of the UN.

Which are the alternatives then? Three options have recently been identified, all of which find precedents to support their case. The Committee could accept the credentials put forward by the new rulers; it could defer its decision allowing the present representation to continue; or it could accept the credentials of the representatives of the democratically elected governments. A fourth option could be that the decision is deferred with no representative, on which there is also a precedent.

Let´s consider the two extreme alternatives. Accepting the credentials put forward by the new rulers meets the critique is that this would grant the new regimes undue recognition and credibility, sending a worrisome signal to other fragile states. Undoubtedly the Taliban and Myanmar´s military rule does not at present live up to the ideals of the UN. Human rights organizations and civil society activists in both countries report of problematic practices from both a democratic and a human rights perspective. There are also several precedents of the GA recognizing the credentials of democratically-elected governments no longer in power.

The second extreme – a rejection of the credentials – would certainly be a powerful statement regarding the illegitimacy of the regimes in light of the way in which power was seized as well as current human rights record. What complicates things, is that from the perspective of the UN, human rights and democracy are not the only values at stake here. In addition, one of the most fundamental values of the UN is universality. In 1948 the ICJ affirmed that the intent of the drafters was to establish a low threshold for membership. The UN is created for the purpose of enclosing all states of the world, as a platform for diplomatic contact and cooperation, and therewith also as a means of influence and pressure. Universality should presumably therefore prevail as a value also in processes of representation.

Two fundamentally different approaches to international law and politics become embodied here: the power of dialogue v. coercion. Or with a bit more nuance: should democracy and respect for human rights serve as a prerequisite for membership and representation, or a process that can be promoted through participation in UN work? The two need not be mutually exclusive. Egregious cases of disregard of the UN Charter should be reacted to. At the same time there is no lack of states in the UN that have dubious democratic practices, and a poor human rights situation (or e.g. here). Let´s not forget that the former Myanmar government was also widely condemned by the international community for not preventing the widespread ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya minority.

When the Taliban were last time in power, the UN never recognized their rule. This time around, although engaged in practices such as public hangings and curtailing freedoms upheld by the previous government, the Taliban is promising to be open and inclusive. This promise has generated some calls for not excluding the Taliban from the world community, but instead to incentivize it to deliver on its promises. As to Myanmar, the military junta has already spoken before the UN Human Rights Council, as the representative of Myanmar. As there are no Credentials Committees in UN subsidiary bodies, it was therefore left to states to object to this. Yet no-one did. In that speech, the military pledged to perform its duties as a state party to, among other things, core human rights instruments. The military junta has also promised general elections (in 2023).

These promises should be seen against reports of massive violations of rights in both Myanmar and Afghanistan. Surely the acceptance of the credentials of the new rulers is out of the question if the UN wishes to retain credibility. United States, Russia and China have reportedly brokered an agreement that will block Myanmar’s military rulers from addressing the United Nations’ General Assembly, and allow the current representative to continue (also see e.g. here). That representative, however, has agreed not to speak at the GA. This seems like a political compromise among UN Security Council permanent members in a stalemate that has been going on in the UN ever since the coup. At the last minute before addressing the GA, the current Afghanistan ambassador has withdrawn from the GA. These developments add another layer of politics to the credentials question, as it now seems that, in practice, we have a situation of deferral by empty seats.

If the credentials process is mostly considered a mere technical exercise, the 76th session of the GA is displaying the intense politics of Rules of Procedure. The current stalemate can be the least hazardous option by which to allow time for the Credentials Committee to make a decision. It is quite another thing, however, whether this is a viable option also for the Committee as it would mean taking no stand on standards of legitimate governance. The decision of the Credentials Committee is about whether to endorse undemocratic seizures of power, or to send a message of the cost of such action. Some have even seen the credentials policy of the UN as an extension of a right to democratic governance. However, the decision also concerns the role of the seizure itself. What weight should the Committee give to the promises of the rouge rulers? The decision is furthermore about universality. Is it viable for the UN to have a situation of de facto non-representation of states? Finally, the decision is about the politics of representation. The two upcoming decisions will inevitably be scrutinized in great detail, and guidance will be sought in them for future use. Introducing too detailed criteria for representation could be counterproductive for the inclusiveness of the UN. Introducing none would allow the uncertainty to continue, questioning the commitment of the UN to democracy and human rights. Balancing between these fundamental principles is no light task for a 9-member Committee.

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