A simple guide to Palestine’s application for membership of the United Nations

There’s a lot of confusion about the PLO’s likely attempt this week to gain full membership of the UN.  In particular, many commentators (and the PLO itself) often refer to the initiative as an attempt to gain “recognition” by the UN, which it is not.  The UN does not recognise states; only other states can recognise states (however, UN membership would undoubtedly boost Palestine’s claim to be a state).


As a British diplomat at the UN, I helped negotiate Palestine’s last “upgrade” in its status in 1998, when the UK was the Presidency of the EU.  The main negotiation for that General Assembly resolution was between the EU, which controls a large number of votes at the GA, and the Arab Group, which supported the PLO’s initiative.


Here are some of the key issues:


The Process

To become a member of the United Nations, a state has to apply to the UN Secretariat which then will refer the application to the UN Security Council.  The UNSC then has to decide whether to recommend the application to the General Assembly, which then has to vote by a 2/3rds majority to accept the country as a member.  This most recently happened in July when South Sudan became the 193rd member of the UN (a process shepherded by Independent Diplomat, as the Republic of South Sudan is one of our clients).


What is likely to happen


First, the UNSC…

At this point, the PLO has yet to present an actual draft of any resolution to go before the UNSC, so we still don’t know exactly what it will consist of.  It may be a simple application for membership, or it may be (as I would have recommended) a fuller description of the necessary outlines of an equitable, just and lawful solution to the Israel/Palestine dispute (and thus harder for the US, which claims to support such an outcome, to oppose).

The US has said that it will veto any application for full membership by Palestine.  We can therefore expect that the resolution will not pass (it will be interesting also to see who else votes against or abstains: I suspect very few, as most will prefer to hide behind a US veto, playing to the Arab gallery).  In this case, it is likely that the PLO will then offer a different resolution to the General Assembly for Palestine to become a state observer.


Then, the General Assembly…


Since any application for membership has to be approved by the Security Council, the General Assembly cannot itself make Palestine a member (there is a small chance that the PLO may try to use the “Uniting for Peace” procedure to circumvent the UNSC blockage and have the GA take up the membership issue, but I think this unlikely to succeed: I will explain why below).


Instead, the Palestinians are likely to present a resolution to make Palestine an observer state at the UN.  At the moment, the PLO is allowed various rights at the GA, including a seat and the right to propose agenda items.  But it is not acknowledged as a state by the GA.  The likely resolution that the PLO might present would change this.  But again, we have yet to see precisely what such a resolution would consist of (the PLO has not circulated any draft text of a resolution).  And any such resolution would likely be subjected to heavy textual negotiation before a vote, if the Palestinians want to maximise the number of votes in support (alternatively, they may rush a vote to make a political point, assessing that they have sufficient support).  Any textual negotiation would be complicated (the GA has 193 members, organized into different regional groups, many of whom would have views on the resolution) and would therefore take time.


However, we can expect that such a resolution would easily pass the simple majority required (unlike full membership, only a simple majority of the GA would be required in this instance).  This would therefore result in Palestine being given enhanced status at the GA, roughly equivalent to that of the Vatican or Switzerland before it became a full member of the UN (but, again, all depends on what is actually in the resolution).


The consequences…

For Palestine:

Are many.  In particular, the PLO believe that such a GA resolution would significantly enhance Palestine’s claim to be a state.  This would, they believe, bring them important international benefits, including the right to join various international bodies, including in particular the International Criminal Court (the ICC).  They are probably right in this, but each international body, including the ICC, has different rules and procedures of membership and none are to be taken for granted and rendered irrelevant by any decision of the GA. 


However, on the ICC, where the Palestinians have already sought its jurisdiction over the Occupied Territories under article 12(3) of the Rome statute, it is likely that the GA decision will enhance Palestine’s argument that it is in fact a state.  This makes it more likely that the ICC will decide to exercise its jurisdiction over the Occupied Territories.  The PLO believes that this will act as a deterrrent against Israel’s military actions in the West Bank and Gaza (a debatable point of course, since Israel emphatically rejects the ICC’s right to exercise such jurisdiction).  Less mentioned is that ICC jurisdiction also has the potential to bring Hamas, which is like Israel alleged to have committed various awar crimes, under the ICC’s scrutiny.  The ever-excellent Colum Lynch has a good article at his Turtle Bay blog on this issue.


Politically, the PLO believe that the resolution will give Palestine a kind of legal and political “parity” with Israel, as well as increase the pressure for Israel to return to the table to negotiate a lasting deal, based on the 2-state solution with the ’67 borders etc etc..  The more extravagant claims of some Palestinian leaders however that such a decision will automatically mean that any future UN decisions, for instance at the Security Council, will be under Chapter VII of the UN charter, and thus obligatory for Israel to implement, are not justified.  The UN Security Council makes its own mind up on such matters, and as long as the US remains a permanent member, we can expect that the Council will be prevented from taking such forceful action (assuming that other members would agree in the first place, which many would not).  This assessment reinforces an overall feeling I have that the legal and political consequences of this initiative are in general being overstated.  Susan Rice has a point when saying that the consequences of the initiative on the ground are nil (though, in my view, that does not mean that the initiative is not worthwhile).  That said, already and at a minimum, the PLO has succeeded in putting the issue of Palestine at the top of the international agenda for UNGA Ministerial week.  This is no small achievement in a year of such extraordinary events.


For Israel:

Less good.  The likely thumping majority at the GA for enhanced status for Palestine will underline Israel’s international isolation.  However, Israel is entirely used to such isolation at the UN, where every year a raft of resolutions are passed that are critical of Israel.  The Israelis claim with some justification that they are singled out at the UN, where many repressive and unpleasant regimes are ignored.  It is debatable whether this episode will significantly add to the already considerable pressure on Israel to return to the negotiating table.  Israel is correctly more concerned about the significant cooling of its relationships with Egypt and Turkey, in its region.  The UN initiative may have the opposite effect to that intended, not least by making the current Israeli government yet more resistant to pressure to re-engage.  But more qualified observers in and of Israel are better judges than me.


For the US:


All bad.  Despite the President’s undertakings last year in his GA speech to support a 2-state solution based on exactly the parameters that everyone else agrees (with the exception of Israel), the US will be isolated at the UN in blocking the Palestinian initiative.  This will undoubtedly damage the US image in the Middle East in particular.  The desperate efforts by the US to stave off this diplomatic mess by getting Israel and the PLO to agree to talk again look unlikely to succeed in time.  If they do succeed, the initiative may, in a sense, have helped US efforts by forcing the issue to a head, and pressurizing Israel to the table (though the US would be loth to admit it).  But if they fail, as they appear likely to do, the fundamental weakness, if not to say bankruptcy, of US mediation efforts will be exposed in a very embarrassing fashion.  US arguments that the Palestinian initiative will damage the peace process are now treated with considerable and justifiable scepticism, as there is no substantive peace process to speak of, just lots of people (Quartet, Tony Blair etc) talking about a peace process.


I will add to this blog later, with commentary on the role of the EU and the PLO in particular, whose motives in this have yet to be fully analysed (you will note that it is the PLO that is leading this initiative, reflecting their traditional role as the international representative of the Palestinian people).  I will also add a note on the “Uniting for Peace” procedure and further updates as the week plays out (there is a technical description of the origins of UFP here).

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