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Want a place on the UN stage? Leaders of divided nations must first get past this gatekeeper

By DAVID BILLER and JOSEPH KRAUSS
Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — It’s one of the United Nations’ more obscure bodies, with no space to call its own within the riverside headquarters. And there is scant insight into how it decides a question of far-reaching impact: Who gets let through the door?

With an anodyne name, the U.N. Credentials Committee has long gone unnoticed; it doesn’t even appear on the U.N.’s own organizational chart of its many agencies, councils, committees and departments. But when it comes to countries riven by political divisions or coups, the nine-member body is the gatekeeper to the world’s stage at the U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting.

Credentialing is a mere formality for universally recognized governments. But leaders of factions within divided nations know that the committee’s decision stands to withhold or bestow some much-desired legitimacy — especially when their claims aren’t necessarily the strongest.

So how does the committee decide who speaks for member states?

The workings of the Credentials Committee received little scrutiny until recently — when the Taliban and Myanmar military junta sought entry — and remains “an astonishingly opaque body,” said Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group.

The president of the General Assembly proposes the members at the start of each yearlong session. Russia, China and the U.S. have occupied committee seats since its 1947 inception. The six other seats rotate, and newly selected members are Andorra, Grenada, Nigeria, Solomon Islands, Suriname and Togo.

The committee meets a couple times a year behind closed doors, issuing recommendations in a report that sheds virtually no light on the tenor of their evaluation or discussions. Last year’s was barely three pages. The General Assembly rarely discusses or debates the report before approving.

“I think everyone finds the Credentials Committee a bit of a mystery. It is one of the least transparent U.N. bodies,” Gowan said by phone. “To some extent, everyone sort of lives with this, because the fact that it isn’t transparent allows it to fudge certain decisions and kick hard decisions down the road.”

What if there is a dispute over representation?

Rival authorities may submit documents to try to credential their own would-be U.N. representatives. The committee’s criteria for recommending the U.N. grant or deny entry remain a matter of some conjecture.

Chief among them appears to be effective control of territory, though that may not be enough, according to an article in the American Society of International Law penned by Catherine Amirfar, a former president of the association, and two associates from her law firm Debevoise & Plimpton.

“It is difficult to distill rules or principles on representation determinations from the Credentials Committee’s recommendations,” they wrote. “The Committee appears to apply a presumption of continuity from the prior session, while accounting for factors such as democratic legitimacy and commitment to human rights. Whatever factors the Committee might consider relevant, the nature of the criteria considered surely leave room for political considerations.”

Although no country has diplomatically recognized the Taliban, it holds power throughout Afghanistan. Myanmar’s junta likewise controls the country. Yet both countries have gone unrepresented at the General Assembly in 2021 and 2022.

In December, having once again received competing submissions, the Credentials Committee issued its report. It put off making a decision on the two countries, leaving the Taliban and the junta still boxed out.

It also declined to issue a recommendation on dueling requests from Libya. That left credentials in the hands of the internationally recognized administration seated in the capital Tripoli rather than the rival government in the east, where devastating floods killed thousands of people earlier this month.

There are several other countries where power is contested domestically, but not at the U.N.

Addressing the General Assembly on Thursday was Sudan’s Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, who seized power in a 2021 coup, sidelined a broad-based pro-democracy movement and for the last five months has been battling an equally autocratic rival general for control of Sudan. Despite controlling much of the country’s territory — even in the capital, Khartoum — the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces did not submit a request for U.N. credentials.

Are there any unresolved disputes this year?

Following a coup in July, two competing credentials were submitted for Niger — but as of Thursday afternoon, the Credentials Committee had not scheduled a meeting, Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the Secretary-General, said in an emailed statement.

Niger appeared on a preliminary General Assembly schedule earlier this month, but no speaker was slated to speak as of Thursday.

Before the coup, Bakary Yaou Sangaré had been Niger’s representative at the U.N. Afterward, the ruling junta made him their minister of foreign affairs and circulated his photos to journalists in the General Assembly hall on Monday, along with a statement proclaiming that he would “reaffirm the nation’s sovereignty.”

However, the U.N. received a letter from the deposed government’s foreign minister “informing of the end of functions of Mr. Bakary as Permanent Representative of Niger to the United Nations,” and Dujarric said on Thursday that Sangaré was no longer allowed onto the premises.

“This team, led by the army, enjoys the unconditional support of the people and we’re going to demand that our government react,” Insa Garba Saidou, a local activist who assists Niger’s new military rulers with their communications, told The Associated Press.

What impact does UN representation have back home?

The U.N. General Assembly is a once-a-year opportunity to address fellow leaders and international media, weigh in on key issues and unveil major initiatives. Speaking confers prestige and a certain degree of legitimacy back home.

Juan Guaidó, who declared himself Venezuela’s leader in 2019 following President Nicolas Maduro’s widely considered sham reelection the previous year, was initially recognized by dozens of countries, including the United States. He never submitted documents to speak at the General Assembly, although representatives of his parallel government held meetings on its sidelines.

A U.S. attempt to advocate for the transfer of credentials from Maduro’s government to Guaidó recognition went nowhere, and Guaidó’s effort to topple Maduro eventually fizzled.

“That U.S. effort failed, and I think that was one step back for Guaidó in trying to position himself as legitimate president of Venezuela,” Gowan said.

The committee’s recommendations can have other knock-on effects: The article by Amirfar and her co-authors noted that the Credentials Committee’s reluctance to make a decision on Myanmar created confusion over who — a representative of the junta or the prior government — would represent the country at the International Court of Justice.

“The role of the Credentials Committee and the impact of its recommendations has grown substantially since U.N. member states first adopted the rules that govern its procedure,” it read. “Far from its original ministerial function … the Credentials Committee has emerged as a key player in critical questions of global governance.”

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AP journalists Sam Mednick in New York and Regina García Cano in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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To more coverage of the U.N. General Assembly, visit: https://apnews.com/hub/united-nations-general-assembly

Article Topic Follows: AP National

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