Rival Claims to Afghanistan’s UN Seat Pose Dilemma for the World
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan almost three months ago, and senior United Nations officials and Western leaders are in regular contact with the Islamic militant group. So are foreign aid organizations, which coordinate with the Taliban on everything from food deliveries to medical assistance as it works to keep Afghanistan from collapsing.
But on the matter of international recognition, world powers aren’t quite there yet.
At a meeting this month, a UN committee that includes China, Russia, and the U.S. is widely expected to punt on rival requests for diplomatic representation—one from the UN ambassador of the deposed Afghan government and another from the Taliban. A deferral would allow Ghulam Isaczai, who represents the ousted government of President Ashraf Ghani, to continue to act as Afghanistan’s ambassador in New York, even though his government back home is long gone. Meanwhile, Suhail Shaheeen, the Taliban diplomat nominated for the position in September, will likely have to wait his turn indefinitely.
Getting him accredited isn’t the Taliban’s most pressing matter right now. About 19 million people, or half of Afghanistan’s population, faces acute food insecurity, according to the UN. Rampant unemployment and a shortage of cash are putting urban residents—including the middle class—in danger of slipping into hardship as winter arrives.
Yet the economic crisis and the matter of international recognition are linked: The lack of recognition makes it harder for the Taliban to receive much-needed aid. The Taliban is facing a cash crunch after the U.S. and its partners froze Afghanistan’s access to more than $9 billion in overseas assets, mostly central bank reserves held in American banks. The Biden administration has rejected appeals from Russia and China to release the assets as the situation worsens. On Nov. 3, the Taliban banned the use of foreign currencies and ordered the public to use local currency in a bid to ease the crisis. Funding from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund is also on hold.
UN officials, who have been shuttling in and out of Kabul, insist the flow of aid shouldn’t be impeded. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has repeatedly called on countries to unfreeze Afghanistan’s assets and allow development aid to reach the economy or risk watching it crumble. He has sought waivers to let in money from the IMF.
“We need to separate the political discussion from the humanitarian imperative,” says Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the UN World Food Programme representative in Afghanistan. “The international community needs to extend a hand. There is a tsunami of destitution, incredible suffering, and hunger spiraling out of control across Afghanistan.”
Many countries still question whether the Taliban, infamous for its brutal rule during the 1990s, merits international support. For now, the U.S. and its allies are trying to use recognition as a carrot of sorts, dangling it as a reward for if the Taliban reforms its approach to human rights, women’s and girls’ empowerment, and freedom of movement. They also want to make sure the Taliban is serious about stifling terrorism.
In a rare instance of unity, China, Europe, Russia, and the U.S. are roughly on the same page on the question of recognition, even though they differ on their priorities in Afghanistan. China and Russia are more intent on stopping the drug trade and combatting terrorism, while Sweden and the U.S. place more emphasis on human rights. “Nobody is in a hurry to recognize,” Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said on Oct. 29. “The question of recognition will arise when the international community makes sure that the promises and commitments that the [Taliban] authorities announced will be delivered.”
After retaking power in August, the group pledged to respect the rights of women and minority communities and to give amnesty to those who worked with the U.S.-backed government, but crackdowns have been reported.
Asked how China plans to vote, Zhang Jun, Beijing’s ambassador to the UN, says all members are looking at the issue in a “prudent manner” and China will act on the “basis of international law.” Sweden, which chairs the nine-member credentials committee, has declined to comment on the matter.
“It doesn’t feel there is a strong bloc of countries ready to make this leap,” says Richard Gowan, who oversees the UN work of the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization. “They are looking for a way to kick this down the road for now.”
It’s an unusual, but not unprecedented, situation to have rival claims to a UN seat. In a rare coincidence, the committee will consider competing claims for Myanmar’s seat as well in its meeting this month. Myanmar’s junta, which took control in February, has put forth its candidate even as Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, the representative in New York nominated by the ousted government of Aung San Suu Kyi, has asked to renew his UN accreditation.
Kyaw Moe Tun has the backing of Myanmar’s National Unity Government, a shadow government set up by Suu Kyi’s allies, while Isaczai represents a government with no real aspiration of coming back. Yet a precedent for keeping Isaczai in his chair exists: When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the ambassador of the ousted government at that time remained in place as the UN credentials committee deferred its decision.
There’s also the option to keep the seat empty. In 1997 the committee deferred a decision on rival claims to represent Cambodia and left its UN seat vacant instead. A coalition formed in Cambodia the following year and its candidate was approved to take the seat, which resolved the issue.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.