Palestine in the UN: paths to membership, paths to peace

US and Israeli objections to Palestine's UN membership should be overcome in the aim of implementing the peaceful two-state solution which much of the international community has pledged support of. There are various legal routes to this objective, some more tortuous than others, explains Martin Wählisch.
Martin Wählisch
25 July 2011

“Membership in the United Nations is open to all other peace-loving states,” notes the UN Charter. The admission depends on “a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council,” the Charter continues. The conditions sound feasible, but for Palestine the reality of international politics has been blocking its way into the world institution for decades.

Fearing a delegitimisation of Israel, the Obama administration has already indicated it will veto Security Council approval. The US still hopes for a prior comprehensive peace agreement. An open debate on the middle east is scheduled in the Security Council for 26 July. From the perspective of international law, it will be hard not to grant a UN membership to Palestine.

Procedures for Palestine’s UN membership

The UN Charter enshrines no right to become a member. Membership of an international organisation is regularly fulfilled by accepting a standing offer. A recommendation from the Security Council is obligatory. As the current Swiss president of the General Assembly, Joseph Deiss, commented in a conference in May this year, “the General Assembly cannot take the initiative.”

This year, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser will preside as president of the General Assembly. The current UN ambassador of Qatar was elected strategically. Initially, Nepal was set to assume the office, as the Asian country group was set to choose. Several African, middle eastern, and central Asian nations switched their vote, in the hopes that a Qatari General Assembly president might ease support for a vote on Palestinian statehood. Qatar backs the potential Palestinian bid for UN membership. On 14 July 2011, the Arab League pledged to “take all necessary measures” to secure recognition of Palestinian state via an appeal to the Security Council.

Denying UN membership is not without precedent. Taiwan’s 15th consecutive annual endeavour to gain membership took place in 2007. Beijing opposed the bid, reinstating the “One-China” resolution made by the General Assembly of 1971. However, the case of Palestine differs from these past examples. It is neither a divided country like Vietnam or Korea, nor is its membership explicitly hindered by a Security Council resolution. Merely pointing to a comprehensive peace agreement will not be plausible. Israel was equally allowed to join the UN prior to a final settlement.  In the aim of achieving a peaceful two-state solution, the admission of Palestine would be just.

The argument that a Hamas- and Fatah-governed Palestine is not “peace-loving”, is from an Israeli point of view reasonable. Israel feels constantly threatened by its regional neighbours, and vice versa. To receive UN membership, the Palestinian government will have to unambiguously prove that it is of no danger to others.

PLO officials have implied that they would lobby for the activation of the 1950 UN resolution 377, known as “Uniting for Peace”, if faced with a US veto in September. Introduced up by the US during the Korean War, the resolution created the device of an emergency special session should the Security Council be dead-locked in times of a “threat for peace and security.” Until today, the resolution has been invoked on ten occasions, none of them concerning UN membership. While the denial of an admission of Palestine is not necessarily a threat to peace, a Uniting for Peace resolution could, however, relate to the second purpose of the UN Charter: the development of “friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of people.” In any case, Palestine would need to mobilise UN member states. Some countries could be reluctant to stand against the US and Israel. A Uniting for Peace resolution would require a more intense bargaining constellation than the approval of UN membership after a recommendation by the Security Council. 

Prospects and challenges

Taiwan is acknowledged by 22 countries. Kosovo is accepted by 75 states, among them the US and most EU countries. Israel has diplomatic relations with 156 states. Palestine is recognised as a state by 122 countries, including Brazil, China, India and Russia. Even if statehood required a base level of recognition by other states, Palestine would have acquired adequate international ties. It needs a two-third majority in the General Assembly, 129 votes, to be admitted as the 194th member state of the United Nations.

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made public, Israel could support a Palestinian state under the right conditions. He warned that a Palestinian state which includes Hamas would try to perpetuate conflict with Israel. And indeed, no country’s security interests can be ignored. The legitimacy of the state of Israel is irrevocable. Nevertheless, the likelihood is equally high that an admission of Palestine to the UN could ease tension. In the end, this chance is beyond legal interpretation.

Facing a probable veto by the US, the Palestinian authorities have already hinted they will opt for an upgrade from observer to “non-member state status,” which only demands approval by the General Assembly. Palestine would gain all the rights of full membership except voting. Previously, both parts of Korea and Germany as well as Switzerland were granted the same status. Also the Holy See, the Vatican, is a non-member state. Practically, not much would change, as Palestine was already granted special rights to reply, raise points of order, co-sponsor certain resolution and make interventions in the General Assembly. The dire humanitarian and economic situation in Palestine would be the same. Nonetheless, the symbolic boon of admission would be tremendous. The middle east peace process could be set on a new spirit of fairness and equality leading to the side-by-side coexistence of two “peace-loving” states.

A longer version of this comment appeared in The Palestine Chronicle (July 22, 2011):

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