A Mostly Symbolic Vote on Palestine’s Status at the UN

On Friday, May 10, the General Assembly will hold a vote on Palestine’s bid to become a full member of the United Nations. The vote is largely symbolic. An entity can only become a full UN member with the approval of the Security Council, and Palestine’s bid failed in a vote last month due to a U.S. veto.

However, this General Assembly vote provides the 193 existing UN member states an opportunity to formally express their support—or lack thereof—for Palestine’s UN membership. The resolution also offers some marginal upgrades to Palestine’s current status as a “non-member observer state.” What it definitely does not do is confer upon the State of Palestine a status at the UN equivalent to that of a member state.

A Symbolic Vote. But Symbolism Matters!

The path to Palestine’s UN membership remains unchanged: it goes through the Security Council, which ultimately means it goes through Washington, as the United States is the only member of the Security Council still opposing Palestinian membership at the UN. (In a Security Council vote on April 18, twelve out of the fifteen members supported Palestine’s bid. Switzerland and the UK abstained, and the US vetoed it). At this point, Palestine will become a member if and when the United States decides to allow it.

The General Assembly resolution formally requests that the Security Council reconsider its past rejection of Palestinian membership. Informally, this vote at the General Assembly provides a very public platform for countries to express their solidarity with Palestinian aspirations to become a full UN member state.

Currently, 142 of 193 UN member states recognize Palestinian sovereignty on a bilateral basis. In the last week alone, three more countries established formal ties: Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica. Even more countries have expressed an intention to formally recognize Palestine in the near future, including Spain. Given the ongoing war in Gaza, this vote would be a key political show of support for Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

Some Marginal Tweaks to Palestine’s Current Status at the UN

While the resolution is formally structured as a way for the General Assembly to encourage the Security Council to reconsider its prior rejection of Palestinian membership in the UN, it also contains some tweaks to Palestine’s current status at the UN.

Palestine is a “non-member observer state,” along with the Holy See. This status confers on these two entities certain privileges at the UN, like the ability to directly engage in specific negotiations, the opportunity to co-sponsor resolutions in some contexts, and a seat in the back of the General Assembly hall. This General Assembly resolution offers some upgrades to this status, including moving Palestine’s physical seat in the General Assembly from the back of the room to its rightful alphabetical place between Palau and Panama. The resolution also gives Palestine the right to speak and participate in different kinds of meetings than its current status allows.

Some of these upgrades can meaningfully enhance Palestinian participation in certain UN meetings. For example, the resolution would give Palestine the right to speak on behalf of a group of states with which it shares similar positions on given issues. (At the UN, states with common interests often form blocs during negotiations or debates. This resolution would allow Palestine to address the entire General Assembly on behalf of a bloc or group of countries with which it is allied on a particular issue.)

The resolution also gives Palestine the right to vote in a specific context: in international conferences convened under the auspices of the General Assembly. The General Assembly is sometimes (but not always) the forum for negotiating international treaties, and this resolution would give Palestine a vote when that is the case. For example, last year, the UN concluded the “Intergovernmental Conference on an International Legally Binding Instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction.” This resulted in a treaty text. If this measure were in place, Palestine would have been able to fully participate in this conference.

What the resolution does not—and cannot—do is give the State of Palestine the full voting rights of a member state. The Deputy Palestinian Representative to the UN explained this on Twitter earlier this week.

At the UN, you are either a member state or you are not a member state. With membership comes full voting rights at the General Assembly. Despite some narrowly circumscribed changes to how Palestine can participate in some meetings, this resolution does not give Palestine full voting rights and does not make Palestine a member of the United Nations.

A US Law to Defund the UN Would Not Be Triggered

Despite the fact that this resolution does not confer full membership to the State of Palestine in the UN, the Israeli delegation is disingenuously suggesting that the vote should trigger longstanding American laws that prohibit the United States from paying dues to, or otherwise funding, UN entities that include Palestine as a member state. These laws date back to the 1990s and were intended to deter the Palestine Liberation Organization from obtaining international recognition. These laws remain on the books. In 2011, the US was compelled to cut funding for UNESCO after its members admitted Palestine as a member. After falling deep into arrears, the US eventually lost its vote (and influence) at UNESCO.

“If it is approved, I expect the United States to completely stop funding the U.N. and its institutions, in accordance with American law,” said Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan.

Except, of course, the General Assembly cannot not grant Palestine membership to the UN, so this law would not be triggered. The UN charter is clear: an entity can only join the United Nations with the approval of both the General Assembly and the Security Council. So far, Palestine has not met that threshold.

There may be overwhelming support at the General Assembly for admitting Palestine as the 194th member state, but the fact is this cannot happen through a vote of the General Assembly alone.

At this point, there’s one and only one path to Palestine’s membership to the United Nations: through the Security Council. Until or unless the Security Council (read: Washington, D.C.) changes its stance on Palestine’s bid for UN membership, the State of Palestine will not become full members of the UN with all the rights and responsibilities that entails.


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UPDATE: A new version of the draft resolution clarifies that the State of Palestine remains an observer state, and does not have the right to vote in the General Assembly, nor be elected to UN bodies like the UN Security Council or ECOSOC.