UN Representation in an Era of Revitalized Multilateralism
from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

UN Representation in an Era of Revitalized Multilateralism

Competing UN credential submissions are not unprecedented. Many of the pressures and challenges of the modern era, however, are.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the seventy-sixth session of the UN General Assembly in New York City, U.S., September 21, 2021.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the seventy-sixth session of the UN General Assembly in New York City, U.S., September 21, 2021. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/Pool

The seventy-sixth session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly had a number of hefty agenda items on its docket, many of which remain unresolved. Among the latter is the issue of who should represent Myanmar and Afghanistan in the international body. Groups with competing claims of political control and legitimacy in both countries have submitted credentials for their own UN delegations and representatives. It will be up to the UN Credentials Committee, an ordinarily inconspicuous body, to determine which to approve. Although such questions are not unprecedented, the Committee will need to render its judgments in a complex modern international context and in a manner that reinforces rather than damages its credibility.

The UN Credentials Committee, a nine-member body appointed by the UN General Assembly, is the primary UN organ tasked with examining “the credentials of representatives of [m]ember [s]tates.” Upon its review, it submits recommendations regarding accreditation to the UN General Assembly, which ultimately decides whether to accept them. The current committee members are the United States, China, Russia, the Bahamas, Bhutan, Chile, Namibia, Sierra Leone, and Sweden.

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Historically, the Credentials Committee and the UN General Assembly have only rarely rejected an authority's credentials, an outcome largely confined to cases involving warring factions with competing credentials. For example, in 2011, the government of Muammar al Gaddafi and the National Transitional Council (NTC), an opposition group, submitted competing credentials on behalf of Libya. In August 2011, the NTC captured the country’s capital, Tripoli, and forced Gaddafi into hiding. In September 2011, although the NTC had not yet established effective control over all of Libya, the Credentials Committee recommended the approval of the group’s credentials over those submitted by Gaddafi’s government—a recommendation the General Assembly ultimately accepted and executed.

The Questions of Myanmar and Afghanistan

On May 12, 2021, the military junta in Myanmar, which usurped power on February 1 and has been accused of human rights violations, submitted the credentials of its appointed UN representative, former military commander Aung Thein Lin. In a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the junta’s foreign minister declared that Myanmar's currently recognized UN ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, “had been terminated on February 27, 2021, due to abuses of his assigned duty and mandate.” The National Unity Government (NUG), to which Tun has pledged his allegiance, continues to campaign aggressively for the Credentials Committee to reject the junta’s application in favor of their own. Although the NUG has acquired widespread popular support and is seen as a viable alternative to military rule, it controls no territory—a historically critical consideration of the Credentials Committee. On September 13, the United States and China brokered an agreement to block both Myanmar’s military leaders and its incumbent, NUG-supported UN ambassador from addressing the UN General Assembly. They also agreed to delay decisions regarding Myanmar’s representation until November.

The issue of Afghanistan’s UN representation involves competing credentials submitted by the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group that seized control of the country on August 15, and the caretaker government of former Vice President Amrullah Saleh. In a letter submitted to the United Nations on September 21, the Taliban requested to address the UN General Assembly during its 2021 high-level debate week and nominated Suhail Shaheen, its spokesperson in Doha, as Afghanistan’s UN ambassador. The Taliban also stated that Ambassador Ghulam M. Isaczai, who was appointed by former President Ashraf Ghani in June 2021 and who is supported by the caretaker government, “no longer represent[s] Afghanistan.” The Credentials Committee is slated to review the nomination in November. While the Taliban was not offered the opportunity to speak at the seventy-sixth UN General Assembly, Isaczai was scheduled to address the session on September 26 on behalf of Afghanistan. He ultimately declined to.  

The Value of UN Representation—A Modern Perspective

Analyses of Myanmar and Afghan representation at the United Nations have largely focused on the implications of recognition on government legitimacy, which are undeniably significant. Approval of UN credentials has long been recognized as a valuable step in legitimizing an entity’s political control over a state. Although it does not immediately translate to universal or collective recognition of a government, it can prompt other countries to recognize one authority over another. However, a pure focus on legitimacy fails to capture the full scope of the task before this year’s Credentials Committee, which touches on the relationship between representation decisions at the United Nations and the requirements of effective multilateralism in the twenty-first century.

Speaking before the UN General Assembly on September 21, Secretary-General Guterres identified several critical and pressing global concerns, that no nation can address alone. Unfortunately, the world is suffering from “a deficit of multilateral solutions” to address its “surplus of multilateral challenges.” In his recent landmark report, Our Common Agenda, Guterres calls on the UN system and UN member states to create a more networked, transparent, and effective era of multilateralism—one that is better suited to respond to the needs of the “we the peoples” named in the UN Charter. Determining who gets a seat at the table is vital to the success of that mission.

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Throughout the opening of the UN General Assembly, national leaders repeatedly invoked their hopes that the United Nations would serve as a reliable and credible forum for multilateral cooperation. For the world body to play this role, it needs as many member states as possible to be committed to the principles of its Charter. Indeed, the minimal official UN guidance regarding accreditation instructs the Credentials Committee to consider the question of competing credentials “in light of the [p]urposes and [p]rinciples of the [UN] Charter.” Representation at the United Nations also permits national authorities to reap the benefits of access to global partnerships, to participate in collective decision-making on transnational challenges, and have a platform to advance the interests of “we the peoples.” Therefore, in weighing the relative merits of competing credentials, the Committee and UN General Assembly ought to consider not only which entity is more dedicated to the purposes of the United Nations, but also which would use the benefits of representation to more credibly deliver on the goals and promises of the rules-based international system.

Additionally, the Credentials Committee ought to consider that, as legal persons, sovereign states not only have certain rights, but also important responsibilities, including the responsibility “to protect the welfare of its own peoples.” In an age where the most critical threats to human life disregard state boundaries, protecting the welfare of a population implies participating meaningfully in international efforts to address globalized challenges. The Committee ought therefore to ask which authority is most likely to foster multilateral cooperation and deliver on global commitments.

Taking into account these additional considerations would require the Credentials Committee to expand upon the unofficial criteria it has previously relied on to make such determinations. For example, in the case of Myanmar, even though the NUG controls no territory, it does have an established base of popular support and has already made (some) commitments to promote universal humanitarian principles. The current case of Afghanistan is more complicated. Historically, the Credentials Committee has rejected (or refrained from approving through deferral) credentials submitted by authorities that usurped political power by force. In this case, however, the Committee should consider what the Afghan people stand to gain from the exclusion of the Taliban—which currently control the governing instruments of Afghanistan and yield the power to alter the lives of the Afghan populous—from UN representation. What are the benefits, if any, of instead seating the delegation of a self-proclaimed caretaker government, which holds no such power? It could be wiser to attempt to reshape the identity and ideology of the Taliban government by providing it with meaningful participation at the United Nations—in essence, embedding it within a framework of multilateral cooperation.

Deciding who gets to represent a state at the United Nations has always been more than just a logistical matter of printing nametags (or assigning Zoom names). The implications of awarding UN accreditation today, however, extend far beyond the legitimization of particular authorities. They ought to be viewed in the context of amplified calls for UN reform and the revitalization of meaningful, credible multilateralism. Such an approach could involve facing some uncomfortable truths and realities. But as the world struggles to address blaring, code-red transnational challenges, the time to wrestle with such questions is now.

Ania Zolyniak is a research associate with the Council on Foreign Relations’ International Institutions and Global Governance program.