Why the UN Security Council Stumbles in Responding to Coups
Why the UN Security Council Stumbles in Responding to Coups
A Big Week for Democracy: Elections in India, South Africa and Mexico
A Big Week for Democracy: Elections in India, South Africa and Mexico
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 10 minutes

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.


UN Director
Senior Advisor to the President

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