May 30, 2011 / 10:54 AM / 9 years ago

Can Palestine become a United Nations member state?

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The Arab League has said it will seek full U.N. membership for a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital, ignoring opposition from Washington and Israel.

People flash 'victory' signs in front of a Palestinian flag during a sit-in protest outside the U.N. office in Amman May 15, 2011. REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

However, although such a move would carry symbolic force, there appears to be little chance it could succeed at present.

WHAT STATUS DO THE PALESTINIANS CURRENTLY HAVE AT THE U.N.?

The Palestinians are U.N. observers without voting rights. The Vatican and European Union have the same status.

WHAT DO THE PALESTINIANS, ISRAELIS AND OTHERS WANT?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wrote in the New York Times this month that the international community should recognise a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September and support its admission to the world body.

U.S. President Barack Obama said last year he hoped a Palestinian state could be admitted to the United Nations by the time world leaders gather in September in New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly session. The statement, U.S. officials say, was only an expression of hope, not a call for a vote this autumn on Palestinian membership in the United Nations.

Israel is lobbying against the Palestinians’ U.N. bid.

But many European Union states, U.N. diplomats say, are looking increasingly favourably on the idea, largely due to frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and what they see as its recalcitrance over settlements and other issues holding up peace talks.

CAN THE UNITED NATIONS RECOGNISE COUNTRIES?

Technically the United Nations does not recognise states. Individual U.N. members do that on a bilateral basis. In reality, however, membership in the United Nations is generally considered to be confirmation that a country is an internationally recognised sovereign state.

HOW DOES THE U.N. ADMIT NEW MEMBER STATES?

Countries interested in joining the United Nations must first apply to the U.N. Security Council. If the 15-nation council approves the membership request, it is passed to the U.N. General Assembly for approval. A membership request needs a two-thirds majority to be approved, which today would mean 128 votes out of 192 member states.

South Sudan is set to secede from the north on July 9 and will most likely apply for U.N. membership soon afterwards. Once it joins the United Nations, the number of U.N. members will rise to 193 and the two-thirds majority threshold in the General Assembly will increase to 129.

COULD THE PALESTINIANS JOIN THE U.N.?

In theory, yes. Egypt’s U.N. Ambassador, Maged Abdelaziz, told reporters in New York on Thursday that 112 countries now recognise a sovereign Palestinian state and more are expected to do so in the coming months. But as long as the United States is ready to use its veto to block a Palestinian request for U.N. membership, there is no chance of success.

Even if the Palestinians secured a two-thirds majority of votes in the General Assembly, there is no getting around the need for prior approval of the Security Council. According to the U.N. charter, membership in the United Nations “will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”

If Washington changed its position and agreed to back a Palestinian U.N. membership bid, or to abstain during a Security Council vote, it would probably succeed.

COULD ‘UNITING FOR PEACE’ APPLY?

Some Arab U.N. diplomats have suggested the Palestinians could attempt to bypass the Security Council by citing the “Uniting for Peace” resolution of 1950, which allows for the General Assembly to call an emergency session to take up matters related to international peace and security when there is disagreement between the permanent Security Council members. That resolution enabled the United States and its allies to thwart Soviet attempts to use its Security Council veto to cut off support for the U.N.-mandated forces in the Korean War.

Western diplomats and several U.N. officials have said that “Uniting for Peace” would not apply to questions of U.N. membership. That General Assembly resolution, they said, applies only to issues of international peace and security, not membership applications. They also said that the U.N. charter is sufficiently specific regarding membership procedures, and there is no compelling argument to bypass those procedures.

WHAT HAS THE WORLD COURT SAID ABOUT THE ISSUE?

The U.N. International Court of Justice has issued two non-binding advisories about admitting new members to the U.N. The first one from 1948 says decisions on admission of states should not be political but based on meeting the criteria for membership — which are that a candidate must be a state, peace-loving, accept the obligations of the U.N. charter, be able to carry out these obligations and be willing to do so.

The court’s second advisory opinion from 1950 said the General Assembly cannot admit a state to the United Nations without a positive recommendation from the Security Council.

WOULD A GENERAL ASSEMBLY VOTE ALONE HAVE LEGAL FORCE?

No. If the General Assembly in September passes a resolution voicing support for the idea of admitting Palestine as a U.N. member state, it would have only symbolic value.

Editing by Crispian Balmer and Jonathan Lynn

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