Taliban asks: What does it take to join the UN club?

Afghanistan's ruling Islamic movement hopes steps taken this week will lift pariah status.

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The Taliban, the Islamic movement that rules over much of Afghanistan, last week launched a diplomatic offensive to seize one of the last bits of the country it still does not control: Afghanistan's seat at the United Nations.

Despite the sizable gains the Taliban made through battlefield victories, capturing 90 percent of the mountainous country's territory, it has met with little success in diplomatic arithmetic: convincing the comity of nations that it truly represents the Afghan people, and protects civil liberties.

"Today Afghanistan's seat is occupied by a band of warlords in exile," said Taliban deputy Foreign Minister Abdur Rahman Zahid to a small group of Western journalists at the UN building in New York last week. "We came here to bring it back to the people of Afghanistan."

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Five years after consolidating their power, the Taliban are still treated like a pariah by the international community. The Taliban has imposed a rigid brand of Islamic law and are accused of violating women's rights. Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have recognized the Taliban government.

At the UN, Afghanistan is represented by the government of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who has headed a loose coalition based in neighboring Tajikistan, since 1996.

In a bid for recognition, the Taliban officials have presented a set of credentials to the UN for the past three years, saying they control 90 percent of their country. Yet, each year, the UN credentials committee refused to recognize the delegation, leaving Afghanistan's seat occupied by the Rabbani government.

"We would like to know on what grounds the UN [can] give the seat to a government that does not exist and whose head of state has no address," Mr. Zahid says.

Each year, member states have to submit a set of credentials with the name of the ambassadors that will represent them at the UN. In case of conflicts, the credentials committee decides which of the opposing governments has the right to occupy the seat.

To obtain the seat in the UN, a government must be in control of its territory, with the consent of the population and willing to abide by the UN charter. Yet, experts say, the committee's decisions have very little to do with technicality.

"The committee may be a technical body, but it makes political decisions," says Francesc Vendrell, the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan. "It reflects the member states' political judgment on some governments."

If the criteria were strictly applied, experts say, very few governments would be represented at the UN. It is the will of the major member states that often decides who gets the seat.

Earlier this month, Somalia's UN seat was occupied for the first time in 10 years when the world body gave a nod to President Abdiqassim Salad Hassan, who was elected president not by the people, but by an assembly of traditional leaders who met in neighboring Djibouti.

In 1979, a Vietnamese-backed movement overthrew the Khmer Rouge's government in Cambodia. China and the United States pressured the committee to bar the pro-Vietnamese regime from the UN. Until 1992, the Khmer Rouge, who are blamed for the genocide of 1 million people, occupied Cambodia's seat.

"The UN ... is a just-membership organization, and that is why the Taliban will not get the seat," says Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan and professor at New York University. "For various reasons, no major member states have a political interest in recognizing the Taliban today."

Early next month, the credentials committee will meet again to consider the Taliban request. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently declared the US will oppose the bid. She argued that the Taliban are still harboring Osama bin Laden, the leading suspect in the bombing of two US embassies in East Africa in 1998. The regime considers Mr. Bin Laden a "guest" and has always refused to hand him over, even after the Security Council imposed sanctions against it last year.

But experts say this does not necessarily mean the Taliban will never get the UN seat. They point to China.

During the first 22 years of the UN's existence, Taiwan occupied China's seat at the United Nations, before the member states gave the Communist regime of Beijing the UN and Security Council seat in 1971.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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