Who represents Myanmar? UN faces credentials pressure at assembly

Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), established by the democratically-elected politicians removed from office in last year’s military coup, is calling for official recognition at this month’s 77th United Nations General Assembly.

“The United Nations need to accept the NUG’s delegation at each and every assembly and sessions and all through the other agencies,” Dr Tun-Aung Shwe, the NUG’s representative in Australia, told Al Jazeera.

“The international community must provide support to the National Unity Government which is the true representative body of the people of Myanmar. The NUG represents the Myanmar people. The military junta is not eligible to represent the Myanmar people at the United Nations.”

The NUG was formed by politicians from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) after army chief Min Aung Hlaing threw them out of office in February 2021 and jailed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. As the military moved to crack down on opposition to its rule, the NUG organised into ministries and deepened alliances at home and overseas but UN accreditation, which would allow them to participate fully in the organisation, continues to elude them.

The United Nations announced in December 2021 that it had deferred a decision on Myanmar’s representation, a failure that human rights advocates say has hampered the international response to the deteriorating situation in the country and risks legitimising the coup regime.

“There have been serious inconsistencies in the handling of this issue by different UN bodies, with some allowing the military junta to represent Myanmar, while most have not allowed anyone to sit in Myanmar’s seat,” the Myanmar Accountability Project said in a statement.

“These institutional inconsistencies are denying the people of Myanmar a voice in UN bodies at the very time when they need it most, with violent repression and armed conflict in the country worsening each day causing a deepening humanitarian crisis.”

People from Myanmar have continued to protest against the military’s power grab, calling for the restoration of democracy [File: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP]

Credentials are decided by a nine-country committee of UN states, with the United States, Russia and China enjoying permanent membership.

At last year’s 76th United Nations General Assembly, the NUG-aligned Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun — who has held the position since 2018 and was the target of an assassination plot in 2021 — remained in Myanmar’s seat but agreed not to speak at the high-level talks.

The military, meanwhile, is eager to replace Kyaw Moe Tun with its own choice of ambassador.

“The problem with the status quo at the UN is that there is divided and incomplete recognition within the UN,” Tyler Giannini, a professor at Harvard Law School, told Al Jazeera.

“There should be consistency of representation based on the decision of the UN General Assembly, which should be the NUG as that would be in line with the will of the people.”

Giannini said it was the responsibility of the UN to resolve the impasse.

“The people of any UN Member State have a right to have their desired UN representatives in place, and the military’s representatives do not represent the people’s wishes while the NUG would,” he said.

Measures of legitimacy

Patrick Phongsathorn, a human rights advocacy specialist at Fortify Rights, which works on Myanmar, told Al Jazeera that UN recognition of the NUG was vital in establishing diplomatic ties and responding to the ongoing human rights abuses taking place in Myanmar.

Some 2,276 people have been killed since the coup and more than 15,000 arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a civil society group which has been monitoring the crackdown.

In July, the generals executed four political opponents, reviving the death penalty, which had not been used since the late 1980s, and prompting outrage in many parts of the world.

Myanmar's white gilded and empty chair at the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting after it was excluded from the event.
The coup leaders and their ministers have been excluded from key summits of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) amid frustration at their failure to deliver on a plan agreed in April 2021 to end the violence [File: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters]

“If the credentials committee accepted the NUG’s claims to be the legitimate government of Myanmar that would encourage other UN member states to extend recognition to the NUG as the official government of Myanmar,” Phongsathorn said.

“[This] would allow the NUG to establish diplomatic relations with those countries [and] would have knock-on impacts on building a democratic movement inside Myanmar.”

The NUG has told Al Jazeera that 10 of its 17 ministers continue to work in parts of Myanmar that are effectively outside the control of the military.

Other ministries are working outside the country — in Australia, it has established an official bureau in the national capital Canberra.

It is from these locations that the NUG continues to operate and build relations with countries in Southeast Asia and around the world.

“The NUG has democratic legitimacy which is also a really key thing in state recognition and has also shown its commitment to upholding international law,” Phongsathorn said.

The NUG has also said it will appear before the International Court of Justice on behalf of Myanmar regarding charges of genocide committed against the Rohingya in 2017, a move which Phongsathorn says shows the party’s commitment to international law and its willingness to participate in the international community.

The military is currently acting for Myanmar at the ICJ, a reflection of the confusion.

“[Another] key factor in the recognition of governments is that they control the territory they are claiming to represent. And the junta just can’t make that claim at the moment,” Phongsathorn said.

A recent report from the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M) found that due to resistance from armed ethnic groups and the People’s Defence Force, a network of civilian armed groups established by the NUG in 2021, the military regime can be said to have stable control of 17 percent of Myanmar’s territory.

Min Aung Hlaing smiles broadly as he shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin
As Myanmar has become isolated on the world stage, the military has deepened its relationship with Russia, a key source of weapons and military equipment [Valery Sharifulin/Sputnik via AFP]

Legal experts say that is too little for the generals to be considered the representative of the Myanmar people.

“The National Unity Government and the ethnic resistance organisations control more than half the country directly or indirectly and they have a great deal of influence over another 25 percent of the country,” said Chris Sidoti from SAC-M.

“So whether you look at legal legitimacy or de-facto control the National Unity Government has by far the best claim to be recognised as the government of Myanmar and to be the Myanmar partner for other states. And this is what should be happening.”

‘Dismal dysfunction’

A former member of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, Sidoti also told Al Jazeera that the credentials uncertainty was hampering a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

The UN Security Council, where Russia is one of five countries with the power of veto, has been unable to agree on a global arms embargo for Myanmar, and Russia remains a major supplier of arms to the embattled generals.

Sidoti describes Russia’s support as “significant” for the coup leaders given their global isolation.

“Only the Security Council is able to impose a legally binding international sanctions system in relation to arms supplied to the military,” he said.

“It’s an indictment of the Security Council that it is failing to carry out its responsibilities under the United Nations’ Charter. In fact, the UN has failed to do anything. Myanmar is yet another story of the dismal dysfunction of the United Nations system.”

Further criticism of the UN was recently directed towards Noeleen Heyzer, the special envoy of the secretary-general on Myanmar, who was appointed last December and visited the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw last month.

She was photographed shaking hands and laughing with Min Aung Hlaing, who was army chief at the time of the crackdown on the Rohingya in 2017.

Heyzer, who says she has held “extensive and regular consultations with Myanmar’s key stakeholders” focusing on the NLD, NUG and ethnic armed groups since her appointment, declined an interview request from Al Jazeera but in a written statement clarified the nature of her visit.

The meeting with Min Aung Hlaing and other senior generals was designed “to convey the serious concerns of the United Nations and propose concrete steps needed to immediately reduce the conflict and the suffering of the people,” she said.

“My visit was part of broader efforts by the United Nations to urgently support an effective and peaceful Myanmar-led political pathway to return to civilian rule based on the will and the needs of the people, based on my mandate as an impartial actor to engage with all stakeholders in Myanmar, the region and globally, consistent with the principles of the United Nations.”

For observers like Fortify Rights’ Patrick Phongsathorn, the visit was another sign of the UN’s failure on Myanmar.

“It was really a misstep and very little – if anything – was achieved by her trip to Naypyidaw,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The UN as an institution could be doing a hell of a lot more and the Secretary-General needs to show a lot more leadership on Myanmar.”

 

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