Thursday, 18 April 2024 23:19

Palestine’s status at the UN explained

What will it take for Palestine to become a full UN Member State? As the Security Council takes up the matter while the devastating war in Gaza enters its seventh month, we looked at Palestine’s current status and what it takes to become a UN Member State.

Palestine’s current status

Right now, Palestine is a “Permanent Observer State” at the UN, enjoying the status that allows it to participate in all of the Organization’s proceedings, except for voting on draft resolutions and decisions in its main organs and bodies, from the Security Council to the General Assembly and its six main committees.

However, some other participation is off-limits to Permanent Observers. This was made clear by a General Assembly resolution, which temporarily, for the year 2019 during which Palestine served as chair of the Group of 77 developing countries and China (G77), accorded to Palestine additional rights: to submit proposals and amendments and introduce them, to exercise a right of reply and to raise procedural motions, including points of order and requests to put proposals to the vote. These rights temporarily accorded to Palestine then expired as of 2020.

On 2 April 2024, Palestine sent the UN Secretary-General a letter requesting renewed consideration be given to the application of Palestine for admission to membership in the UN, a request originally submitted in 2011. Upon receipt of the request, the UN chief forwarded it to the Security Council, which on 8 April took up the matter in an open meeting.

The process is a continuation of what happened in September 2011, when the Palestinian President sent a letter with the application request for UN membership to the UN chief, who promptly sent the application to the Security Council and the General Assembly. In accordance with the Council’s provisional rules of procedure, the Security Council referred the matter to its Committee on Admission of New Members, where members deliberated but were not unanimous on approving the request.

UN Photo/Evan Schneider
Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of Palestine to the UN, (left) talks with a participant at a special meeting held in observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. (file)

How UN Member States are born

Agreement between the UN General Assembly and the Security Council is needed to admit any new Member States.

Any application for UN membership comes to the UN Secretary-General and then is forwarded to the Security Council and the General Assembly.

The 15-member organ decides whether or not to recommend the admission to the 193-member General Assembly after its Committee on Admission of New Members deliberates on the matter.

The process is outlined in the UN Charter, whereby UN membership “is open to all other peace-loving States which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter” and “are able and willing to carry out these obligations”.

The Council can vote on the proposal and must have at least nine members in favour and none of its permanent members – China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States – using their veto power.

Committee of Admission of New Members

As per rule 59 of its provisional rules of procedure, the Security Council referred the matter to its Committee of the Admission of New Members. The Committee met twice, on 8 and 11 April 2024.

In 2011, Committee members considered Palestine’s request at meetings held over two months, but could not unanimously advise the Council to approve the application, with some members in favour, others noting that an abstention was envisaged in the event of a vote and several suggesting other options, including that as an intermediate step, “the General Assembly should adopt a resolution by which Palestine would be made an Observer State,” according to the Committee report.

Learn more about the Committee’s history of decisions here.

Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharette (left) is congratulated by Haiti’s representative Stephen Alexis in the General Assembly after Israel’s admission in 1949 as the UN’s 59th Member State. (file)
UN Photo/Albert Fox
Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharette (left) is congratulated by Haiti’s representative Stephen Alexis in the General Assembly after Israel’s admission in 1949 as the UN’s 59th Member State. (file)

World body holds a vote

After receiving the Council’s positive recommendation, the General Assembly plays its role.

In cases of approvals – like with Israel in 1948 and dozens of others, including South Sudan, in 2011, the newest UN Member State – the Assembly is tasked with drafting a resolution.

Shortly after receiving a Council recommendation, the General Assembly holds a vote on the matter, with all 193 Member States joining in the process.

Granting full membership status

In admitting more than 100 Member States since the founding of the UN in 1945, the General Assembly needs a two thirds majority in a vote to admit a new member.

Once a resolution is adopted, the new member is officially admitted to the UN.

Membership entails participating in UN meetings, paying annual dues and voting on all issues that come before the Organisation. The new member’s flag is then added to the row of members that stretch across the front of UN Headquarters in New York and other main UN offices around the world.

A view of the General Assembly Hall as Mahmoud Abbas (shown on screens), President of the Palestinian Authority, addresses the Assembly before the vote on its status in 2012. (file)
UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
A view of the General Assembly Hall as Mahmoud Abbas (shown on screens), President of the Palestinian Authority, addresses the Assembly before the vote on its status in 2012. (file)

Non-member Permanent Observer status

In the case of Palestine, one year later in 2012, the General Assembly decided to recognise it as a “non-member Permanent Observer State”.

While the only other current non-member Observer State is the Holy See, representing the Vatican, the practice of according the status dates from 1946, when the Secretary-General accepted the designation of the Swiss Government as a Permanent Observer to the United Nations. Observers were subsequently put forward by certain States that later became UN Member States, including Austria, Finland, Italy and Japan.

As a Permanent Observer State, Palestine’s flag does fly outside the UN Secretariat building in New York, although it is slightly separated from the UN Member State flags and is not part of the alphabetic line-up.

The flag of the State of Palestine is raised at the United Nations in Geneva. (file)
UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré
The flag of the State of Palestine is raised at the United Nations in Geneva. (file)

How Palestine became a non-member Observer State

On 29 November 2012, the General Assembly adopted a resolution granting to Palestine the status of non-member observer State in the United Nations, with a vote of 138 for, nine against (Canada, Czech Republic, Federated States of Micronesia, Israel, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Panama, Palau, United States), with 41 abstentions.

Until 2012, Palestine had observer status in the UN General Assembly, but not as a State.

The vote came on the same day that the UN observed the annual International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Established in 1977, the Day marks the date in 1947 when the Assembly adopted a resolution partitioning then-mandated Palestine into two States, one Jewish and one Arab.

Upon the adoption in 2012, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, said its aim in coming before the world body to change its status was to try to “breathe new life” into the peace process.