Is it Time to Bar Coup Leaders from the UN?


A rash of military coups in Africa has resurrected a long dormant question: should leaders who take power through armed insurrections be barred from addressing the United Nations—an institution which swears by, and promotes, multi-party democracy?

The most recent surge, which the United Nations describes as “an epidemic of coups”, include military takeovers in Chad, Guinea, Mali, Sudan, and Burkina Faso (and not excluding Myanmar, which marked the first anniversary of a military government in the Southeast Asian country on February 1).

After a failed coup in Guinea-Bissau last week, President Umaro Sissoco Embalo told reporters “it was a failed attack against democracy. It wasn’t just a coup, it was an attempt to kill the president, the prime minister and the entire cabinet.”

In 2004, when the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor to the present African Union (AU), barred coup leaders from participating in African summits, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan singled out that landmark decision as a future model to punish military dictators worldwide.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a UN diplomat told IPS: “Perhaps it is time for African leaders to pursue such a proposal to censure military leaders. But that decision has to be ultimately taken by the General Assembly, the highest policy-making body in the Organization.”

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters February 1: “It is clear that coups are totally unacceptable. We are seeing a terrible multiplication of coups, and our strong appeal is for soldiers to go back to the barracks and for the constitutional order to be fully in place in the democratic context of today’s Guinea-Bissau.”

At an earlier press briefing on January 25, Guterres said: “I am deeply concerned with the recent coup d’état in Burkina Faso. The role of the military must be to defend their countries and their peoples, not to attack their governments and to fight for power.

“We have, unfortunately in the region, terrorist groups, we have threats to international peace and security. My appeal is for the armies of these countries to assume their professional role of armies, to protect their countries and re-establish democratic institutions.”

Asked about the celebrations in the streets following a military coup, at least in one African country, Guterres said: “There are always celebrations for these kinds of situations. It’s easy to orchestrate them, but the values of democracy do not depend on the public opinion at one moment or another. Democratic societies are a value that must be preserved. Military coups are unacceptable in the 21st century.”

The New York Times reported February 1 the African Union had suspended Mali, Guinea and Sudan, but not Chad –“a double standard that analysts warned could have dire consequences for Africa”.

Djibril Diallo, President & CEO African Renaissance and Diaspora Network Inc (ARDN) told IPS there is reason to be concerned about the resurgence of military takeovers in Africa.

Contrary to perceptions, he pointed out, military coups tend to lead to more state repression not less, more political instability and halt or reversal of economic gains.

“Geopolitical divisions among the international community have not helped to address the effects of military takeovers. Regional and subregional organizations are still to find an effective way of pressuring coup leaders to hand over power to a democratically government in a timely manner,” he added.

“Any solutions to the effects of military takeovers should start with addressing prevailing chronic poverty conditions and youth unemployment, as well as endemic corruption.”

Hence the importance to push forward with the rollout of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), said Diallo, who was a former Spokesperson for the President of the UN General Assembly, 2004-2005; and Special Advisor to the Executive Director and Deputy Director of Public Affairs at UNICEF in 1986.

Prof Daniel D. Bradlow, SARCHI Professor of International Development Law and African Economic Relations, Center for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria told IPS these coups are a troubling development.

“However, they are a symptom of the breakdown in security and governance arrangements in each country and the region, in many cases, caused by pressure from outside forces and the difficult economic situations in the country”.

He pointed out that sanctioning the military governments without also addressing the underlying governance problems and their causes is unlikely to produce sustainable improvements in the affected countries

A newly-released book* on the United Nations recounts Annan as the only Secretary-General (1997-2006) who challenged the General Assembly, urging member states to deny the UN podium to political leaders who come to power by undemocratic means or via military coups.

As one senior UN official put it: “Were military leaders seeking legitimacy by addressing the General Assembly?”

When the OAU, in 2004, barred coup leaders from participating in African summits, Annan 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.”

He also lashed out at African leaders who overthrow democratic regimes to grab power by military means.

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.

Although Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), once addressed the UN, some of the world’s most controversial authoritarian leaders, including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Syria’s Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar al-Assad, and North Korea’s Kim il Sung and his grandson Kim Jong-un, never made it to the UN.

When former Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, accused of war crimes, was refused a US visa to attend the high-level segment of the General Assembly sessions back in September 2013, a Sudanese delegate told the UN’s Legal Committee that “the democratically-elected president of Sudan had been deprived of the opportunity to participate in the General Assembly because the host country, the United States, had denied him a visa, in violation of the U.N.-U.S. Headquarters Agreement.”

Meanwhile, some of the military leaders who addressed the UN in a bygone era included 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).

In October 2020, the New York Times reported that at least 10 African civilian leaders refused to step down from power and instead changed their constitutions to serve a third or fourth term -– or serve for life.

These leaders included Presidents of Guinea (running for a third term), Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda, Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Ghana and Seychelles, among others. The only country where the incumbent was stepping down was Niger.

Condemning all military coups, the Times quoted Umaro Sissoco Embalo, the president of Guinea-Bissau, as saying: “Third terms also count as coups”