By Ambassador TS Tirumurti
Afghanistan, Myanmar, Mali, Republic of Guinea and now Burkina Faso belong to a list of recent forcible takeover of power either by the military or by armed fighters. But the UN reacted to each of them differently.
When the military (Tatmadaw) took over in Myanmar on February 1 2021, the West, led by P-3 (USA, UK and France) in the UN Security Council (UNSC), came down on them like a ton of bricks. First, UNSC members called for ‘restoration’ of election results i.e. bring the National League for Democracy NLD) of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi back. But the election ‘winners’ were quietly and quickly forgotten when the West realized that there was a strategic opportunity to intervene in a country which they had not been able to penetrate so far.
The National Unity Government (NUG) formed after the military takeover, newly formed ‘People’s Defence Forces’ as well as ethnic groups and their armed wings were propped up, overtly and covertly, against the Tatmadaw. The middle ground held by the election ‘winners’ NLD was effectively emasculated but no one seemed unduly concerned. The then UN Special Representative Christine Bergner, a Swiss national, took a hard line and she placed a pre-condition that she will travel only if she can meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, even though UN’s role in such situations is to find a way forward through direct engagement and not indulge in such grandstanding.
She even announced that she will ‘stand in the trenches’ with the NUG! The UN reached a low point. It was no surprise that she left her post after several months without meeting Tatmadaw. Liechtenstein coordinated a UN General Assembly resolution on Myanmar while ASEAN and Myanmar’s neighbours urged patience. In the vote, all ASEAN and neighbours abstained clearly indicating that the voice of neighbours, who had a better appreciation of the ground situation, was ignored. The world is watching Myanmar drifting to the brink of a potential civil war type situation.
Coming to Afghanistan, when Taliban forcibly captured power on August 15, 2021, except for France, the other four of the P-5 seemed to feel that they could work with Taliban one way or another. They justified that this will, inter alia, wean Taliban away from supporting terrorism, protect women’s and minorities’ rights and ensure an inclusive government. They said that Taliban was very much part of Afghanistan, conveniently forgetting that Tatmadaw was even more so with 25 percent of the Myanmar Parliament reserved for them under the Constitution! In Afghanistan’s case, there was no call for democracy to be ‘restored’.
Three UN Under Secretaries General made a beeline for meeting the Taliban without any preconditions. The then UN Special Representative Deborah Lyons not only started engaging with the Taliban, but also voiced Taliban’s views in the Council as to how they were ‘misunderstood’! UNSC gave exemptions after exemptions for the Taliban leaders to travel abroad to find a way forward, when all they had to do was implement UNSC resolution 2593 adopted on August 30 2021 under Indian Presidency, which clearly laid out the benchmarks. Further, the UN report pointed out “Haqqani Network is still regarded as having the closest links to al-Qaeda…” but not many in the Council or the UN Secretariat gave this report the importance it deserved.
In December 2021, the Taliban got a generous waiver from the Security Council for receiving humanitarian aid. In effect, UN did the opposite of what they did in Myanmar. In March 2022, when Taliban finally denied schools for their girls, reality hit home to all those who were soft-peddling in the Council. With further restrictions being imposed by Taliban on women, with no inclusive government in sight and with Al-Qaeda strengthening its position and supported by the UN proscribed Haqqani network (with the Taliban Interior Minister Haqqani in saddle), there is now a sense of sobriety in the UN and the Council.
When the first military takeover happened in Mali in August 2020, UNSC treated it with kid-gloves. There wasn’t the usual consternation like for Myanmar, but a sense that they need to ‘work with the military’ to ‘restore’ democracy. It was even hinted that it was a ‘good coup’ because the people welcomed it! But with relentless territorial advance of terrorist and Islamist radicals threatening the Malian Transitional government, neither the Transitional Government nor the UN Peacekeeping forces and French forces‘ Barkhane’ in the Sahel were able to stem the situation.
The military did a second takeover of power in May 2021. The UNSC members responded by paying an official visit to Mali. But when the discussions with Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which was in discussion with the military, did not bear fruit, suddenly the ‘good coup’ became a ‘bad coup’! And with the French troops (former colonial masters) being asked to leave and Russia-linked Wagner Group coming in, the mood is the just opposite in the Council, at least among the P-3. The question is who has the interest of the Mali government in mind to win this ‘politico-military’ war with the terrorists and Islamic/ jihadist radicals?
Finally, there was a military takeover which the Security Council almost forgot. This was the one in Republic of Guinea! For several months after the coup in 2021, the UNSC didn’t do anything. Suddenly it woke up, since it was getting awkward not to do anything, and a closed meeting took place. Then back to silence again. And now again in Burkina Faso, where a second military takeover in September 2022 (after the one in January 2022 couldn’t make much headway against Islamic jihadist radicals) is being dealt with by the Council behind ‘closed doors’ like the first!
So, when people ask why is the UN Security Council not doing anything about not being able to preserve international peace and security, the reasons are not far to seek!
The author was Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations in New York (2020 – 2022) and President of the Security Council in August 2021.
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