By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 31 2023 (IPS)
A rash of military coups in African countries — including Burkina Faso, Sudan, Guinea, Mali, and most recently Niger– has raised a legitimate question: What should be the response of the United Nations, a world body that swears by multi-party democracy, on army take-overs?
Last week, the strong denunciations of the coup in Niger came not only from Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk — but also from all 15 members of the Security Council in a rare unanimity on a seemingly politically divisive issue.
But what if these military leaders seek to exercise their right to address the upcoming General Assembly sessions, come September?
As the New York Times pointed out July 30, Africa’s coup belt stretches the continent from coast-to-coast that has become “the longest corridor of military rule on Earth”
In a bygone era, the UN provided a platform to at least four such leaders, including Fidel Castro of Cuba, Col Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, Amadou Toure of Mali (who assumed power following a coup in 1991 but later served as a democratically elected President), and Jerry Rawlings of Ghana (who seized power in 1979, executed former political leaders but later served as a civilian president voted into power in democratic elections).:
But ironically, there was at least one instance of a Prime Minister from Thailand – a country where military coups once arrived with clockwork frequency — being ousted from power when he was addressing the UN General Assembly rendering him homeless and sending him into political exile in a Middle Eastern country.
The 2006 Thai coup d’état took place on 19 September 2006, when the Royal Thai Army engineered a military take-over against the elected caretaker government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
As a result, there was an unsolicited piece of advice to world leaders visiting New York: If you are heading a politically unstable government, make sure to bring all your military leaders—army, navy and air force chiefs—as members of your delegation to prevent a coup back home during your absence from the country.
Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the UN (1996-2001) and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations (2002-2007), told IPS any group of a few well-meaning countries at the UN, having respect for participatory democracy, should come together proposing a resolution of the General Assembly disbarring leaders of military coups, who overthrew democratically elected governments, from addressing any of the major organs of the UN system, particularly the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“I believe such a resolution would pass with a big majority. We need only a few Member States, believing in democracy. to take that much-needed courageous, resolute, and forward-looking first step. I would look forward to welcoming such a history-making decision by the General Assembly,” he said.
“I would also add that the military leaders should know that the UN would not allow their countries to join any of its peace operations and/or to hold any high office in the UN system. There should be a price that those leaders should pay for their anti-democratic actions,” said Ambassador Chowdhury, President of the UN Security Council (2000 and 2001) and Chairman of the UN’s Budgetary and Administrative Committee (1997-1998).
“In many of my public speeches on multilateralism and effectiveness of the United Nations, which is its most universal manifestation”, he said, “I have repeatedly alerted that ”… I have seen time and again the centrality of the culture of peace and women’s equality in our lives. This realization has now become more pertinent amid the ever-increasing militarism, militarization and weaponization that is destroying both our planet and our people.”
“I believe wholeheartedly that only participatory democracy can effectively and appropriately reflect the true spirit of the UN Charter which begins with the words, “We the peoples …”. Yes, understandably the democratic system has its deficiencies”.
“But is there anything more effective and have more legitimacy in representing the opinion of the peoples of various Member States in this deliberative global parliament?” he asked.
Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco, told IPS the United Nations was originally founded by the victorious allies in the war against fascism.
While having a democratic government was never a prerequisite for UN membership, the principle that there should be a rule-based international order implied that such principles should also apply to those of member states, he pointed out.
Similarly, the human rights provisions adopted by the United Nations also imply the necessity of democratic governance.
An important first step in living up to its democratic underpinnings would be for the United Nations to bar leaders of military regimes from speaking before the United Nations, said Dr Zunes who has written extensively on the politics of the UN and the Security Council.
“Unfortunately, powerful autocratic governments—like permanent UN Security Council members Russia and China—would likely oppose such a rule”, he said. And the United States, despite its pro-democracy rhetoric, could very well have objections, as well.
“The Biden administration is the world’s biggest supporter of autocratic regimes, providing arms to 57% of the world’s dictatorships. Indeed, Egypt’s General Sisi is the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid, with U.S. taxpayers spending over one billion dollars annually to prop up his military regime which seized power in a bloody military coup in 2013,” declared Dr Zunes.
Meanwhile, in 2004, when the then Organization for African Unity (later African Union) barred coup leaders from participating in African summits, Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Ghana went one step further and said he was hopeful that one day the UN General Assembly would follow in the footsteps of the OAU, and bar leaders of military governments from addressing the General Assembly.
Annan’s proposal was a historic first.
But it never came to pass in an institution where member states, not the Secretary-General, rule the Organization. However, any such move could also come back to haunt member states if, one day, they find themselves representing a country headed by a military leader.
The outspoken Annan, a national of Ghana, also said that “billions of dollars of public funds continue to be stashed away by some African leaders — even while roads are crumbling, health systems are failing, school children have neither books nor desks nor teachers, and phones do not work.”
Needless to say, the UN does not make any distinctions between “benevolent dictators” and “ruthless dictators.” But as an international institution preaching multiparty democracy and free elections, it still condones military leaders by offering them a platform to speak — while wining and dining them during the annual General Assembly sessions.
Asked whether the UN General Assembly should set a new standard, Ambassador Chowdhury said: “yes, of course!”
“This should have been done long ago when our much-loved, much-respected Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested it at the outset of the new millennium”
That was the appropriate time for such a landmark decision as the African Group, the biggest regional group of UN Member States, would have championed it not only because the African Union’s predecessor OAU had decided in 2004 to bar coup leaders from African summits, but also because the proposal came from a Secretary-General who was a son of Africa, he said.
“We missed that opportunity when a visionary leader of the UN had the courage to suggest that the UN General Assembly should follow Africa’s lead. Two decades have gone by. I cannot envisage any other Secretary-General would have the guts to suggest that publicly,” declared Ambassador Chowdhury.
This article contains excerpts from the recently-released book on the United Nations titled “No Comment – and Don’t Quote Me on That,” available on Amazon. Thalif Deen, who authored the book, is Senior Editor at IPS, an ex-UN staffer and a former member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN General Assembly sessions. A Fulbright scholar with a Master’s Degree (MSc) in Journalism from Columbia University, New York, he shared the gold medal twice (2012-2013) for excellence in UN reporting awarded by the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA). The link to Amazon via the author’s website follows:
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