How the Palestinian Issue Totally Sidelined Arms Trade Treaty Talks Yesterday

In the laundry list of issues that were thought to stand in the way of a global arms trade treaty, the quest for Palestinian statehood was not among them. And yet that is precisely what delayed what was meant to be the opening day of negotiations at United Nations headquarters, with questions of Palestine’s level of representation during the conference delayed the opening, as touched upon yesterday.

At the heart of the dispute is whether Palestine would be able to be seated as a full state, given its status as an observer at the United Nations:

The Arab group said the European Union should not be allowed at the talks if the Palestinians do not get a place, diplomats said. “The Egyptians, acting for the Arab group, have held up the conference. They insisted that the Palestinians take part,” said one Arab diplomat.

The Palestinians are observers at the UN and the European Union has super-observer status. The Vatican, which is also a UN observer, has said it should also take part if the Palestinians get their way, diplomats said.

Israel, a key arms manufacturer in the Middle East, said it would not take part in the talks if the Palestinians did get conference recognition, Arab and Israeli sources said.

While the Palestinians have sought to bolster their international presence by asking for full UN membership, some diplomats indicated the move could be a tactic by Egypt and others to weaken the treaty.

“Certain states, fearing an arms trade treaty with strong human rights provisions, are exploiting the legitimate Palestinian cause,” said a Western diplomat condemning Egypt’s action.

As of publishing, the conference is now set to begin today, though it is unclear if an agreement has been reached. Whether the conference’s length, originally set to run until July 27th, will be extended following the delay is unclear.

Given the stakes of the treaty, diplomats are hoping to salvage some sort of compromise that prevents abandoning of the conference by either side in this opening scuffle. Should they prove unable to reach one, the question of representation may be brought up before the Credentialing Committee of the conference.

The nine-member Credentialing Committee is made up of the same nine states that formed the panel at the most recent session of the General Assembly: China, Costa Rica, Egypt, Italy, Maldives, Panama, Russian Federation, Senegal and the United States. Of those nine, a majority has voiced support for seating Palestine as a state in the past. Meanwhile, those same rules do not delineate between states participating in the talks and Member States of the United Nations. The rules also declare that while a judgment is being made, that the disputed representatives may be “seated provisionally.” Neither a ruling by the Committee nor temporary seating are outcomes that the United States and Israel are interested in seeing happen.

After last year’s abortive efforts by the Palestinian Authority to be seated in the General Assembly, and the United States’ stripping funding from UNESCO after approving full Palestinian membership, many had assumed that that Ramallah’s push at the United Nations and other international organizations was stalled. That has been proven false with this surprise. With Palestine allegedly refusing to back down and demanding to be allowed to speak as a state, whether the gathered diplomats will allow this to completely derail the conference is yet to be seen.

EDIT: The negotiations finally began this morning, with the Secretary-General giving his delayed speech. The hold on the proceedings were lifted as, according to a journalist from Al-Arabiya, the Palestinian leadership instructed UN Ambassador Mansour to end their campaign to join the conference as a state. Still unknown is the reasoning behind the decision to halt the press. A press conference on the issue called by Palestine’s representatives was originally delayed until noon, and has yet to be held. We’ll update again once a final outcome has been made public.

EDIT: After two days of uncertainty, with the second day’s substantive debate delayed, the Arms Treaty Conference has begun, the Palestinian delegation has been seated as observers. As part of the deal, the Palestinians have been seated outside of alphabetical order, in the front stage right corner. However, the deal also relegated the Holy See, the diplomatic name for the Vatican and an accepted state, to observer status as well. The Holy See is less than pleased about this, but the conference is finally launched.