United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2636 (XXV) on Credentials of Representatives to the 25th session of the United Nations General Assembly, 13th November 1970 (UN Doc A/RES/25/2636(XXV)), OXIO 120
United Nations General Assembly [UNGA]
1. The competences of the United Nations General Assembly towards credentials issued by Member States.
Every United Nations (UN) Member State is able to take part in the works of the UN General Assembly (GA) through its representatives, whose credentials are submitted to the Credentials Committee. Due to Rules 27–29 of the United Nations General Assembly Rules of Procedure (‘Rules of Procedure’), the proceedings concerning credentials should be a purely technical action, where the role of the GA is limited to the acceptance of the report of the Credentials Committee through the adoption of a resolution. Thus, this procedure should not affect the membership in the UN.
The reports of the Credentials Committee during the 1960s were full of objections raised by various UN Members States towards credentials of the South African representatives in the face of apartheid policy. In the opinion of the UN Member States, the fact that the South African government represented not the whole nation but a small group of oppressors was the reason for excluding it from GA works. That is why, for the first time in the history of the GA, this organ refused to accept the credentials of one of the Member States, under United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2636 (XXV) on Credentials of Representatives to the 25th session of the United Nations General Assembly (‘Resolution 2636’). Consequently, even though Resolution 2636 was meant to manifest the condemnation of apartheid policy, it prompted the factual suspension of the South African government from participation in the works of the GA.
Resolution 2636 is relevant to the law of international organizations because it is an example of the extensive interpretation of the competences of the GA. Although intended to perform a purely objective verification of the credentials of states’ representatives, the GA assumed the right to make a normative judgment on the legitimacy of the sending government. Nevertheless, Resolution 2636 should also be considered as an act relevant for general international law, since it constituted a form of institutional sanctions against the South African regime and apartheid policy.
In the single paragraph Resolution 2636, the GA approved the report of the Credentials Committee on the credentials of representatives of the UN Member States to the twenty-fifth session of the GA. However, the approval for credentials was granted ‘except with regard to the credentials of the representatives of the [g]overnment of South Africa’.
There are two dimensions to the participation of states in the works of the GA: membership, as established in Articles 4 and 6 of the Charter of the United Nations (1946) (‘Charter’); and representation, regulated by Rules 27–29 of the Rules of procedure. Rules 27 and 28 of the Rules of Procedure establish the procedure of submission of the credentials of representatives of Member States and functions of the Credentials Committee—that is the examination of the credentials of representatives and reporting them to the GA. At the end, the GA approves the report of the Credentials Committee by adopting a resolution. Thus, the procedure of submission of credentials, as well as their approval, has secondary character with respect to membership in the GA—approving the credentials of the representative of a UN Member State in the GA should be purely technical if the appointing state fulfilled the procedure of submitting credentials established by Rule 27 of the Rules of Procedure.
Participation in GA sessions is one of the most important privileges of UN Member States. Consequently, the submission of credentials and their further approval by the GA is essential in effecting these rights of the UN member. On the other hand, not accepting the credentials equals a factual suspension of these rights. However, this kind of suspension does not meet the requirements of the suspension or expulsion of UN Member States, as established in Articles 5 and 6 of the Charter, since the rightful procedure requires fulfilment of certain requirements, as well as SC involvement.
Resolution 2636 was the only precedent of this kind in the history of the UN GA. Even though it was meant to serve as the manifestation of the UN approach towards apartheid, Resolution 2636 may be described as an attempt of factual suspension or even expulsion of a Member State despite the requirements of the UN Charter. The interpretation of the Rules of Procedure—which enabled the adoption of the Resolution 2636—as provided by the President of the GA, was that the rejection of credentials did not ‘mean that the South African delegation is unseated or cannot continue to sit in this Assembly; if adopted, it will not affect the rights and privileges of membership of South Africa’ (United Nations General Assembly Official Records 25th Session: 1901st Plenary Meeting, para 286). According to the President, rejection of credentials only proved the condemnation of the policies pursued by the South African government. Some of the states taking part in the debate during 1901st meeting of the GA agreed with this approach, but some of them expressed doubts about adopting Resolution 2636. The latter group pointed out that there are many examples of actions of Western states which could be similarly condemned, and that such rejection opens the door for further formal or factual expulsion of other Member States. This attitude was also consistent with the Statement of the Legal Advisor, who clearly indicated that the rejection of credentials of the South African government would be contrary to the Charter (see Statement by the Legal Counsel submitted to the President of the General Assembly at its request).
Resolution 2636 was the first of a whole series, since the credentials of the South African government were also rejected during ensuing sessions, and during the twentieth-ninth session the President of the GA frankly admitted that the GA ‘refuse[d] to allow the South African delegation to participate in its work’ (United Nations General Assembly Official Records 29th Session: 2281st Plenary Meeting, para 159). Ultimately, the South African credentials were accepted only in 1994, when the apartheid policy was abolished.
The South African case was the sole precedent of this kind. Nevertheless, a quite similar situation reappeared in 1982 during the thirtieth-seventh session of the GA when Iran submitted an amendment to the Credentials Committee report in order to reject the credentials of Israel, indicating lack of Israeli compliance with UN resolutions on Palestine, flagrant violations of international law, and even committing the crime of genocide against Palestinians in Lebanon (see Letter dated 22 October 1982 from the Representatives of [forty-three Member States] to the United Nations Addressed to the President of the General Assembly). Ultimately Finland, on behalf of the Nordic states, submitted a motion so that ‘no action be taken on the amendment’, which was adopted by a majority of seventy-four votes in favour to nine votes against (with thirty-two abstentions) (see United Nations General Assembly Officials Records 37th Session: 45th Plenary Meeting).
Nevertheless, it should be noted that there is also a second group of problems connected with the credentials: when the case of so-called ‘rival claimants’ appears, as it has in the situations of Cambodia, China and Taiwan, Afghanistan, and Haiti, where a coup d’état took place and rivals fighting for power in the particular state simultaneously submitted their credentials to the GA. Nevertheless, the decision on rejection of credentials submitted by one of rival claimants did not result in factual expulsion of the Member State from participation in the GA, but rather took the form of recognition of one government instead of the other. Thus, in such cases, the GA wanted to safeguard the democracy or at least the legitimate government which was replaced by the new one—usually favoured by foreign powers—as, for example, in the case of Kampuchea.
Even though the South African case did not start similar practice of the GA in analogous situations, it can serve as an example of the usurpation of power by the UN GA in order to omit more formal procedures. Even though the reasons behind this practice are understandable, since it takes the form of institutional sanctions in case of violation of international law, it is contrary to the Charter.
Further Analysis and Relevant Materials
- S Chesterman, I Johnstone, and D M Malone Law and Practice of the United Nations, Documents and Commentary (Oxford University Press 2016)
- M Griffin ‘Accrediting Democracies: Does the Credentials Committee of the United Nations Promote Democracy through Its Accreditation Process, and Should It’ (2000) 32 NYUJIntlL&Pol 3 725
- M Halberstam ‘Excluding Israel from the General Assembly by a Rejection of its Credentials’ (1984) 78 AJIL 179
- E McWinney ‘Credentials of State Delegations to the U.N. General Assembly: A New Approach to Effectuation of Self-Determination for Southern Africa’ (1976) 3 Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly 1 19
United Nations [UN]
- Rules of Procedure of the United Nations General Assembly (adopted 17 November 1947, entered into force 1 January 1948) UN Doc A/520/Rev.17
- Charter of the United Nations (adopted 26 June 1945, entered into force 24 October 1945) 1 UNTS 16
United Nations General Assembly [UNGA]
- United Nations General Assembly Officials Records 37th Session: 45th Plenary Meeting (26 October 1982) UN Doc A/37/PV.45
- United Nations General Assembly Letter Dated 22 October 1982 from the Representatives of [forty-three Member States] to the United Nations Addressed to the President of the General Assembly (22 October 1982) UN Doc A/37/563
- United Nations General Assembly Official Records 29th Session: 2281st Plenary Meeting (12 November 1974) UN Doc A/PV.2281
- United Nations General Assembly Official Records 25th Session: 1901st Plenary Meeting (11 November 1970) UN Doc A/PV.1901
- Statement by the Legal Counsel submitted to the President of the General Assembly at its request (11 November 1970) A/8160
2636 (XXV). Credentials of representatives to die twenty-fifth session of the General Assembly
The General Assembly
Approves the first report of the Credentials Committee,6 except with regard to the credentials of the representatives of the Government of South Africa.
1905th plenary meeting,
13 November 1970.
The General Assembly
Approves the second report of the Credentials Committee.7
1929th plenary meeting,
14 December 1970.
6 Official Records of the General Assembly, Twenty-fifth Session, Annexes, agenda item 3, document A/8142.
7 Ibid., document A/8142/Add.1.