Palestinian Status at the UN: Breaking the Logjam

There is a good deal of discussion in the halls of the UN, both in New York and Geneva, concerning a possible application of full membership in the UN by the Palestinian Authority.  The discussions reflect similar discussions within Foreign Ministries in the hope that there can be an agreed-upon program of action (or non-action) by September when the new General Assembly meets.  Currently Palestine has observer status at the UN from a time when liberation movements were given observer status – two organizations for South Africa, one for South West Africa as Namibia was then, and for the PLO.  With the changes in South Africa and Namibia, the liberation movement observer status was dropped for the three, and only the PLO remained.

In practice, there is little effective difference between observer status and full membership.  Observers can not vote, but voting in the UN has been largely replaced by ‘consensus making’. Effectiveness for all countries except for a small number of Great Powers depends on the skills of the diplomats which represent them.  The Vatican has only observer status but a good deal of influence due to an effective diplomatic team.  The Palestinian diplomats in Geneva have been weak, in New York somewhat stronger.  The Palestinian diplomats have always been in the shadows of the representatives of the Arab States who want to play ‘Big  Brother’, but with the exception of Egypt which has always had a strong core of diplomats, the Arab diplomats have rarely been more competent than the Palestinians.

Being overshadowed by the larger Arab States would probably not change even if full membership is granted, but full membership would be a symbolic victory of legitimacy and open the door to the independent use of the World Court. As Mahmoud Abbas has written “Palestine’s admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one.  It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice.”

As of now, there are a number of variations being discussed around three possible approaches:

1. The first approach favored by the USA, some of the Western European members of the European Union, in particular Germany, and a few others including Israel is that the issue should go away. It is felt that there are enough problems in the world, especially in the Middle East not to have a complicated procedural battle in September.  This has been the ‘advice’ given to the Palestinians by the US, Canada, and some Western European States.  It may be also what some of the Arab States are saying more privately.  To reinforce their arguments, the US and the Western European governments have a strong card — they can cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority. The pretext would be the Hammas support or participation in a ‘unity government’ even if such a government is made of ‘non-political technocrats’. Hammas is still listed by the USA and the European Union as a ‘terrorist organization’ and so cannot receive funds from the US or EU governments. The Palestinian Authority depends largely on external financing; thus cutting off financing is an argument that carries weight — even if it is called ‘blackmail’ in other settings.

In exchange for dropping the full membership application, there would be some sort of short Israel-Palestine meeting where each side would speak of a ‘peace process’ through September when the membership issue has gone by.  Such a sleight of hand will not advance real negotiations but may ‘buy time’ which is what many governments now want.

2. There is, however, a real possibility that the Palestinian Authority will ask for full membership in September. This will depend in part on discussions among the Palestinian leadership and the views of the three key States concerning the Middle East: Egypt, Turkey, and Iran. Iran which is one of the Vice Presidents of the upcoming General Assembly will be particularly influential in procedural matters. The UN Charter states that the admission of new members “will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”.  The Council makes its membership recommendation through a resolution; thus it must be approved by at least nine of the Council’s 15 members and not be vetoed by the one of the five permanent members.  If the USA abstains — abstentions are not considered a veto — it is likely that there would be at least nine positive votes for Palestinian membership in the Security Council.  Then it is most likely that the General Assembly would follow the Security Council recommendation as it has always done in the past.  Thus current discussions turn around what could convince the US to abstain rather than veto.  We will return to this key issue after a consideration of a third possibility.

3. The third possibility in the case of a US veto is to move the issue to the General Assembly under what is known now as the “Uniting for Peace” mechanism.  UN General Assembly resolution 377(V) of 3 November 1950, first known as ‘the Acheson Plan’ from the name of the US Secretary of State who proposed it and later re-named Uniting for Peace states that in cases where the UN Security Council fails to act to maintain international peace and security, owing to disagreement among the five permanent members, the matter shall be discussed immediately by the General Assembly.  If the General Assembly is not in session, an Emergency Special Session can be called.  This procedure has been used 10 times since its 1950 start. (1) As from September to December, the General Assembly will be in session, a Special Session will not have to be called.  For a resolution to pass under the Uniting for Peace mechanism, there must be a 2/3 majority, meaning now 135 States if all are present and voting.  However, not being present is a ‘diplomatic’ way of not having to be seen making a choice.  Currently, 112 UN members recognize a Palestinian State within the pre-1967 frontiers.  What can not be analysed is how hard the USA and some of its allies would work to prevent the 135 positive voters.

To turn back to the Security Council procedure, we can ask could there be a ‘deal’ that would satisfy no one completely but not dissatisfy any of the five permanent powers to the extent of their casting a veto. Here we can turn to precedent because at the UN everything functions by precedent. If something has been done once, one can argue that it can be done again. If it has never been done, it takes an exceptional situation and a few highly skilled diplomats to get any innovation.

Thus we can turn to the 1954 period and the breaking of the ‘logjam’ on membership. During the first ‘hot round’ of the Cold War — the June 1950 to July 1953 Korean War— the Soviet Union and the USA blocked each others potential allies from UN membership. At the end of the Korean War, there was a host of pending membership applications on which no progress had been made.  There seemed to be little possibility of moving things forward.

The 1954 membership issue was my start at looking closely at diplomatic negotiations around procedural issues at the UN. At a time when I should have spent my time chasing girls, I was a university student representative on the Executive Committee of what was then the United World Federalists in the USA. In 1955, the issue of a review conference on the UN Charter was to be placed automatically on the agenda of the General Assembly. During the 1945 negotiations that led to the creation of the UN Charter, a review conference on the Charter after 10 years was to be placed on the agenda.  This was a demand of some of the smaller States at San Francisco, in particular Australia.  It was expected in 1945 that such a review conference would be held and that was still the expectation in the period 1953-1954.  There was a good deal of reflection on how to improve and strengthen the Charter during such a Review Conference. Universal membership was one of the demands of UN reformers, both some diplomats and activists such as those in the United World Federalists who had taken a lead on the Charter Review issue.

However, both the USA and the USSR opposed holding a Charter Review conference and brought most of their allies along with them.  The result was that when the Charter Review conference came upon on the agenda, it was swept under the rug, and there has never been a review. Nevertheless, the diplomats of the USA and the USSR felt that some of the ‘steam’ for a Review Conference had to be lowered and this could be done by getting rid of ‘universal membership’ as an issue. Negotiations to break the logjam on pending applications started with the aim of making as close-to-possible balance between pro-USA, pro-USSR and neutral States entering the UN.  The negotiations were carried out in 1954 and in 1955, before the debate on Charter Review, the membership logjam broke and Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Laos, Libya, Nepal, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Sri Lanka entered the UN. Japan should have been part of the group, but there was still the “enemy states” clause in the Charter which took more negotiations concerning Japan. Japan only came in the next year, 1956.

Can there be something comparable in September? In an article “Coming in from the Cold: UN Membership Needed for the Phantom Republics”, I suggested at the time of the Georgia-Abkhazia-South Ossetia conflict that Abkhazia, Chechenya, Kossovo, Nagrono-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Transnistra be given UN membership as a necessary first step for security and a lessening of tensions. I had stressed that “to find mutually acceptable forms of government in these conflicts will require political creativity (breaking out of thinking in fixed patterns) and then new forms of constitutional order such as renewed forms of federal-confederal types of government, greater popular participation in decision-making and new forms of protection of minorities.  Flexibility, compromise and cooperation are the hallmarks of success when it comes to resolving such conflicts concerning independence and autonomy.  There is a need for a healing of past animosities and a growth of wider loyalties and cooperation.”

Both diplomats and members of the UN secretariat as well as secretariat of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe where I had also floated the idea explained in detail why such a joint membership procedure would not happen.  None the less, if we added upgrading the status of Palestine in the UN, another membership logjam might be broken.  The point I have repeatedly made is that membership does not solve difficulties; it just provides a framework where serious negotiations might be carried out.  The 1955 access to membership of Cambodia and Laos did not ‘solve’ the Indochina conflict.  The French-led war in Vietnam was still going on, to be followed a decade later by the US-led war.

Thus, I think that a world citizen position is that full Palestinian membership in the UN will not ‘solve’ all the Israel-Palestine issues, and certainly not the issues of the wider Middle East.  However UN membership will allow the Palestinians to come out from the shadows of the Arab States and to negotiate with the Israelis as equals. This is a very modest step forward but it is worth taking.

Rene Wadlow, Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens and editor of the on-line journal of world politics and culture:


(1)   For a useful discussion of the background to the Uniting for Peace procedure see, Dean Acheson Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (New York: W.W.Norton, 1969, chapters 47-51)

Photo from Flickr by Wall in Palestine