Why the UN Security Council Stumbles in Responding to Coups
Why the UN Security Council Stumbles in Responding to Coups
Richard Gowan on Ukraine and How Russia’s War Reverberates at the United Nations
Richard Gowan on Ukraine and How Russia’s War Reverberates at the United Nations
Women carry burning torches as they march during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar on 14 July 2021. STR / AFP
Commentary / Global

Why the UN Security Council Stumbles in Responding to Coups

More often than not, calculations of realpolitik hold the UN Security Council back from taking action to deter or reverse military takeovers. Yet UN member states can use the body as a platform for efforts to keep soldiers in the barracks and away from politics.

In October 2021, ambassadors from the UN Security Council were on a visit to Niger when they heard that the Sudanese military had seized power in Khartoum, arresting civilian ministers. The diplomats briefly wondered whether they could hold an impromptu Council meeting on the crisis in their hotel. They decided not to do so, and the Council took a few days to hammer out a press statement expressing “serious concern” about the military takeover.

If the events in Sudan caught the Council on the hop, UN diplomats have become wearily familiar with what UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called “an epidemic of coup d’états”. The Council diplomats gathered in Niger in October had previously been in Mali, where they had met with Assimi Goïta, a colonel who took power last May in the country’s second coup in just ten months. Over the last year, Council members have faced considerable criticism from both other UN member states and civil society for failing to take firm steps toward reversing the 1 February 2021 military takeover in Myanmar. The body did not even release statements regarding two further coups – in Chad and Guinea – that took place in 2021.

The Security Council has never been particularly adept at responding to coups.

This poor track record is not especially surprising. The Security Council has never been particularly adept at responding to coups. Oisín Tansey, an expert on international diplomacy around military takeovers, notes that the Council did not address coups at all until the Cold War ended and has taken only a “highly selective” approach to them since. It has responded to fewer than a quarter of the coups that have taken place in this period, ignoring military takeovers in cases including Pakistan (1999), Thailand (2006 and 2014) and Egypt (2013). Although it has acted forcefully on rare occasions – including mandating a U.S. military intervention in Haiti to restore the democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1994 – it more often confines itself to making statements of the type that it released regarding Sudan.

A Record of Inaction

There is no consensus among Council members about how far the body should go in responding to coups. Some, including China and Russia, argue that the Council should stay out of UN member states’ internal politics altogether and often aim to rein in Council comments on coups. Beijing and Moscow are generally suspicious of UN sanctions in principle and oppose applying such measures to coup plotters. Western diplomats grumble that their Chinese and Russian counterparts also frequently water down proposed statements – for example, refusing to use the word “condemn” regarding the military takeover in Sudan. But non-Western Council members counter that Western countries display double standards in response to military takeovers. Some Asian diplomats complain that the U.S., the UK and their allies pushed hard for the Council to speak out about Myanmar’s coup – which resonated strongly with domestic audiences in North America and Europe – while ignoring similar events in Chad and Guinea.

The Council’s reticence in the Chadian and Guinean cases could be explained by neither country being on the body’s formal agenda. By contrast, the Council could hardly avoid addressing the coup in Myanmar and the subsequent events in Mali and Sudan, as the UN was already engaged politically with all three countries, with a special envoy covering Myanmar, a political mission in Khartoum and over 15,000 peacekeepers deployed in Mali. Yet the Council response in all three cases was still tentative. Members convened emergency sessions behind closed doors and released statements of concern. In each case, at first they released only a press statement, one of the weakest tools in the UN’s diplomatic armory, and avoided explicitly using the word “coup” to describe what had happened; in Sudan’s case, at least, they inserted a reference to a “military takeover”. Only in Myanmar’s case did the Council eventually make a more formal declaration – in the form of a presidential statement – condemning the junta’s actions, although it took over a month to do so. Since then, it has continued to put out press statements on specific acts of violence in Myanmar, with little or no observable impact. Turning to Mali, the Council included paragraphs on the May coup and the need to return to a democratic transition in the standard resolution renewing the UN peacekeeping force in the country.

The Council has seemed very keen for other actors to take the lead in responding to coups

In general, the Council has seemed very keen for other actors to take the lead in responding to coups, although with varying degrees of conviction and cohesion. After Mali’s military arrested the president, the Council encouraged “all the Malian stakeholders” to work with the African Union (AU) and the sub-regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – both of which have strong stances against coups written into their institutional guiding documents – to find a political solution. But there are limits to how far the Council will go. When ECOWAS announced stringent sanctions against Mali in January, Russia – which has deepening ties with the officers in charge in Bamako – and China stopped the Council from issuing a statement expressing its support.

Sometimes the Council’s endorsement of other actors can look like an alibi for inaction. In October 2021, in the case of Sudan, the Council expressed “strong support” for efforts by the AU, League of Arab States and East African sub-regional organisation Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to handle the crisis, although none of these actors had a clear plan for how to end it. In debates over Myanmar earlier in the year, Council members including Vietnam and India as well as China and Russia insisted that the UN endorse diplomacy by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), although Western diplomats fretted that the regional organisation would move too cautiously to deal with the military, given its history of non-interference in its members’ internal affairs. In the event, ASEAN has indeed proceeded with a very light touch – although it refused to let Myanmar participate in a recent top-level summit – and some New York-based diplomats from the region have expressed frustration that the U.S. and other powers have not pushed for a tougher approach at the UN.

Despairing of the Council, a group of concerned states initially led by Liechtenstein tabled a UN General Assembly resolution in May 2021 condemning the Myanmar coup, a rare step. But this initiative also ran into diplomatic difficulties. ASEAN members diluted references to an arms embargo against the junta, and China and Russia refused to back the text. In the end, 119 countries voted in favour of the resolution, but it had no obvious concrete impact, and the General Assembly moved onto other priorities. Overall, neither the Council nor the wider UN seems able or willing to take firm action against coups.

Reasons to Hit the Brakes

Beyond fundamental disagreements about the Council’s remit in countries’ internal affairs, there are three recurrent considerations that appear to contribute to its stuttering response to this type of crisis: confusion, geopolitics and the Council’s lack of leverage in the countries concerned.

First, the element of confusion tends to be especially important in the early stages of the Council’s response to a coup. In the aftermath of a military takeover, Council members often lack good information about what is happening on the ground. They may also have no clear instructions from their capitals. In the first days after Myanmar’s February 2021 coup, for example, Chinese diplomats appeared uncertain of Beijing’s priorities and were furious when someone leaked a draft Council press statement that may not have taken into account instructions from their home office. Under these circumstances, it is easiest for diplomats to hedge their bets, consult in private and avoid passing statements or resolutions that could complicate matters. Where the UN has envoys in a country who can talk to military and civilian leaders, it is also natural for the Council to let these officials try to resolve a crisis.

Secondly, as the initial diplomatic confusion following a military takeover dissipates, the geopolitical interests of the Council’s five veto-wielding permanent members are liable to hamper its long-term response. While Beijing was surprised and displeased by events in Myanmar, where it had developed close ties with the civilian government, China grew somewhat closer to the junta over the course of 2021. (Anti-junta protesters’ attacks on Chinese-owned companies may have helped tilt Beijing in this direction.) Russia was even quicker to show support for the Myanmar junta – which is a limited but growing purchaser of Russian arms – sending a deputy defence minister to attend a parade in the capital Naypyitaw in March, despite signing off on the Council’s previous statements calling for a return to democracy. Moscow has also cultivated close ties with the Sudanese generals and has started to build up influence in Mali, where the military authorities have allegedly invited the Wagner Group private military contractor into the country (explaining Moscow’s refusal to back ECOWAS sanctions against Mali).

Western powers have their own interests in the affected countries. In a situation such as Mali, most Council members – including the permanent five – appear to see their primary concern as limiting the risks that jihadist groups pose to their national interests. The Council and UN officials and peacekeepers on the ground, as well as Council members like France that have their own national military operations in Mali, have little choice but to work with the de facto authorities and local armed forces.

Even when Council members do make an effort to address coup-makers directly … their leverage is limited.

Finally, even when Council members do make an effort to address coup-makers directly, they often find that their leverage is limited. One goal of the Council’s visit to the Sahel in October was, after all, to encourage Mali’s acting president, Colonel Goïta, to move ahead with elections planned for February 2022. Yet the visit also underlined the limits of the Council’s influence. Diplomats say Goïta, pointedly wearing his military fatigues, was extremely difficult to deal with. In December, the Malian junta announced that it would prefer to delay new elections as late as 2026. Broadly speaking, few diplomats in New York, whatever their national stances on coups, believe the body has the will or capabilities to take drastic action to reverse military takeovers.

Upholding an Eroding Norm

Against this backdrop, those diplomats who believe the Council can do a better job preparing for similar future challenges tend to focus on more modest goals, emphasising that the Council should keep a closer eye out for warning signs of military takeovers. One recent senior member of the Council told Crisis Group that the body failed to “show interest” in the Sudanese political situation prior to the October 2021 events, perhaps missing an opportunity to send useful signals of support to civilian politicians. In theory, the Council has many ways to flag its interest, such as visiting missions like the recent trip to West Africa. If such travel is too taxing, or remains difficult because of COVID-19 variants, the Council has numerous formats for public and private informal meetings – including videoconferences – with politicians, officials and civil society leaders from countries that seem at risk. Council members could convene these meetings to probe threats to civilian government in countries on their agenda more systematically.

Still, where they are not united – and the permanent five in particular are divided – over how to deal with a tottering civilian government or a recalcitrant junta, such engagements will count for very little. Sudanese military leaders assured a U.S. envoy in October that the army had no intention of seizing power literally hours before it did just that. It is hard to believe that the generals would have taken stern warnings from the UN more gravely.

States that want the Council to deter or reverse a coup will in many cases be best served by seeing it as a platform for public diplomacy around these crises.

Accordingly, states that want the Council to deter or reverse a coup will in many cases be best served by seeing it as a platform for public diplomacy around these crises. If and when a substantial number of Council members express concern, they may at least create some impetus for other actors – such as regional organisations – to take more concrete action. Limited as ASEAN’s diplomacy regarding Myanmar has been, the group would probably have done even less if it had not felt pressure from the Security Council and General Assembly to step up.

Where regional organisations do favour a strong response to coups – as in the case of ECOWAS – their members can also use the UN as a platform to amplify their concerns. Ghana, an ECOWAS member which has backed a tough line on Mali and a firm AU posture on Sudan, has just joined the Council for a two-year term. It could use its tenure to focus attention on the deleterious effects of coups on peace and security – whether in terms of threats to civilians or the dangers of regional disruption – with formal and informal Council meetings about the problem. The Security Council is unlikely to respond more systematically or effectively to such challenges in the future. But it is a venue where those states that want to see militaries stay in the barracks and away from politics can continue to press for upholding the eroding norm against coups.

Contributors

UN Director
RichardGowan1
Senior Analyst, UN Advocacy and Research
ashishspradhan
Op-Ed / Multilateral Diplomacy

Richard Gowan on Ukraine and How Russia’s War Reverberates at the United Nations

Originally published in Just Security.

1. This is the first UN General Assembly annual meeting since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, more than half a year ago. What can be done at UNGA about the situation in Ukraine? Should we expect to see any formal action taken related to the war, either to help manage the consequences of the invasion or hold Russia accountable?

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) week is not an opening for peacemaking between Russia and Ukraine. As of now, both sides seem bent on pushing for military victory. Secretary-General António Guterres warned at a pre-UNGA press conference that the chances of a peace deal in the near term are nil. This is a wartime General Assembly, and both Ukraine’s allies and the Russians are in town to gain political advantage, not talk peace.

Ukraine’s friends have one overarching agenda to pursue in New York: Bolstering support for Kyiv among non-Western countries, which have appeared increasingly disengaged from the war as it has dragged on longer than most foresaw. In March, the U.S. and Europeans were able to get 141 General Assembly members to back a resolution condemning Russia’s aggression. While skeptics noted that big non-Western countries like India and China abstained – and the resolution imposed no concrete penalties on Russia – this was still a marked improvement on 2014, when only 100 states backed a resolution opposing Russia’s takeover of Crimea. This April, 93 states backed Moscow’s suspension from the Human Rights Council. That was a solid score given that even some supporters of Ukraine, such as Mexico, argue on principle that isolating countries at the UN only makes diplomacy harder.

But Western diplomats admit that they were already encountering “Ukraine fatigue” by the late spring. A lot of African, Asian and Latin American countries were initially willing to deplore Russia’s offensive, but have not wanted to endanger their security and economic relationships with Moscow by doing so repeatedly. The Ukrainian mission in New York is frustrated that the General Assembly has not said more about the war since April. Kyiv’s allies see little gain in pushing through resolutions that would secure diminishing support.

On the upside, 101 General Assembly members voted last week in favor of allowing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to address the high-level session by video (ironically, all leaders had to speak via video in 2020, thanks to COVID-19, but the UN has been keen to get back to in-person-only sessions). Most African states abstained or did not vote on the issue, but some notable non-Western powers such as India backed the proposal. At the end of the day, I think most diplomats recognized that it is common sense that a leader in a country under siege should be able to give a speech without trekking to New York.

A lot of non-Western UN members are nervous about ... the probability that major aid donors will cut assistance to poor states to divert money to Ukraine.

More broadly, a lot of non-Western UN members are nervous about this year’s food price crisis, the broader economic downturn, and the probability that major aid donors will cut assistance to poor states to divert money to Ukraine. These fears surfaced in the first weeks of the war – I recall talking them through with a European ambassador in mid-March – but a lot of Western officials were too focused on the Russian threat to address them sympathetically at the time. As Crisis Group warned at the end of March, European officials were hurting their own cause by going into UN meetings on challenges like famine in the Horn of Africa and insisting on talking about Ukraine.

The Biden administration was one of the first Western powers to grasp that this messaging was counter-productive. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted some well-received talks about food issues in New York in May 2022. One Arab diplomat privately made an interesting point at the time, which was that the U.S. focus on global food prices stood in positive contrast to the Trump administration’s maladroit handling of COVID-19 in multilateral forums in 2020. But the U.S. and Ukraine’s other allies still have to work hard to convince the Global South that they can both pursue hardball diplomacy over Ukraine and help vulnerable states navigate global economic turmoil too.

On that front, it is notable that the U.S., European Union and African Union are jointly co-hosting a summit on food security at UNGA this week. UNGA is friendly “home turf” for Washington and its friends, as Western leaders will be out in force in New York (after a dash to London for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral) whereas Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are absent from the General Assembly meeting. It’s a helpful platform for a high-level pro-Ukrainian “hearts and minds” campaign, where the U.S. and EU can cajole leaders from non-Western countries to see things their way. It helps that global food prices have stabilized in recent months, mainly because markets are pricing in a global recession. But UNGA is a rare opportunity for President Biden and his friends to reach out to a big group of counterparts from the Global South.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – a former ambassador to the UN – will be at UNGA this week to press Moscow’s case over the war. Over the course of the year, we have seen Russia playing up its claim to be a friend of post-colonial African countries like Mali (where Russian military contractors are backing the government). Lavrov will presumably hit similar notes in New York. We’ve seen that Moscow can play up memories of the colonial era – and Soviet support for anti-colonial movements – quite effectively.

In the end, this week offers the U.S. space to promote its political messages, but the struggle for non-Western support over Ukraine won’t end one way or another this week.

2. How far does the geopolitical fall-out from the Russian invasion, which has largely pitted Russia against the West, spread through the UN system? Are we seeing new fissures, or just extensions of old ones? What are the anticipated and perhaps unanticipated ways in which the war may shape business at the United Nations during UNGA?

Ukraine’s friends have made an enormous effort to isolate Russia at the UN since February. At various points in the last six months, I’ve heard of initiatives to strip Russian officials of roles in UN processes on road safety and the protection of wetlands that are homes for wildfowl. To be honest, I think some of this is a bit pointless. The war for the future of Ukraine won’t be shaped by who is making policy proposals on safeguarding storks’ nests in swamps.

I think what has got lost amidst a lot of this diplomatic noise is that one much-maligned part of the UN system is working better than we expected in the context of this war. That is the Security Council. As Crisis Group has noted, the Council has been predictably gridlocked over Ukraine, but has kept up a sort of minimal functionality on other crises this year. It has passed some noteworthy resolutions updating the frameworks for international support to Afghanistan (where the UN assistance mission is now the world’s residual point of contact with the Taliban) and Somalia. It has kept rolling over the mandates of UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. We have seen a nasty breakdown with the Chinese and Russians over U.S. proposals to impose more sanctions on DPRK, and Russia used its veto this July to block a proposal to extend UN aid supplies to rebel-held North-West Syria for one year. But the Russians did at least agree to a six-month extension of the aid mandate, and Moscow has not been swinging its veto around entirely egregiously (other than with respect to Ukraine).

There are a few explanations for this. We hear that French and Chinese diplomats have been quietly working to minimize Council frictions behind the scenes. Some elected members, such as Norway and Ireland, have done hard but necessary work coaxing out compromises on contentious files like humanitarian assistance to Syria. More fundamentally Russia, the U.S. and the other veto-wielding permanent members (the P5) seem to see that they have shared national interests in preventing the Ukraine mess from poisoning talks on other issues.

3. Earlier this month in advance of UNGA, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield delivered remarks decrying Russia’s aggression and violations of the UN Charter, and committing the United States to a number of principles for leadership at the UN, including “efforts to reform the UN Security Council…The Security Council should also better reflect the current global realities and incorporate more geographically diverse perspectives.” In articulating its view of what it means to recommit itself to “defending the UN Charter” and “protecting the UN’s principles,” is the United States exercising meaningful leadership? Can it live up to the six principles it has set for itself? What realistically could be in store if the United States is “recommit” to Security Council reform but Russia is not? Or do you see this more as a rhetorical strategy that won’t have much impact in practice? 

I doubt that Washington has a model for what it would like to come out of talks on Security Council reform. U.S. officials say they are making a “serious call” for reform discussions, but that is about it. That said, I presume that the U.S. recognized that, given the Council’s obvious impotence over Ukraine this year, a “business as usual” approach to the UN would go down pretty badly when President Biden speaks to the General Assembly. Biden is likely to echo Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s words in his UNGA speech, but it is still unclear whether the U.S. will invest real diplomatic energy in reform following a brief moment of excitement.

I think that the U.S. has to be careful about appearing to indulge in what we might call “diplomatic populism” on Security Council reform. It is well known that China hates the idea of opening up reform talks because Beijing worries that these could lead to one or both of its regional rivals Japan and India gaining permanent seats in the Council.  This is awfully unlikely. After all, the UN Charter grants all P5 members a veto over any Charter reform. But it is a genuinely neuralgic concern for Chinese officials in New York. The U.S. can win some easy points by ostensibly championing Council reform, albeit in vague terms, and then blaming its geopolitical rivals for the fact that this is impossible. (I predicted that the U.S. would do this in a book chapter in 2020, but it’s only available in Japanese, so my acute predictive powers have been overlooked elsewhere). The U.S. may score some points in this way, but could also hurt its very tenuous relation with China in Turtle Bay as a result.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has highlighted the [UN's] weaknesses, but they were flaws anyone who has studied the organization knew were there.

At the end of the day, Russia’s war on Ukraine has highlighted the organization’s weaknesses, but they were flaws anyone who has studied the organization knew were there. I wrote a piece for Just Security about how the Security Council would fail on Ukraine back in January that was sadly prescient (in fairness I underestimated how much support Kyiv would get in the General Assembly early on). But I take some  comfort from the fact the Council has managed to keep up diplomacy on other topics, which I was not sure would be possible in the first quarter of the year. I have also been pleasantly surprised by the way that Secretary-General Guterres has played a useful role on efforts to mitigate the effects of the war, such as helping mediate the Black Sea Grain deal, which I have discussed elsewhere

If you work in the UN, you learn to appreciate the organization’s small wins, and endure its major failures. I understand that a lot of people – and a lot of governments – look at the UN this year and see a profound mess. It would be nice to design a better global institution. But I still value the residual resilience of what we’ve got.