General Assembly Upgrades Palestine’s Status at UN. Now What?

Later Today, the United Nations General Assembly will vote overwhelmingly to upgrade the status of Palestinian representation to the United Nations from “Permanent Observer Entity” to non-member “Non-Member State Permanent Observer.” This seemingly banal change in nomenclature may have profound consequences in the West Bank and Israel.  One place, though, where this measure will not make much of a noticeable difference is at the United Nations itself.  

An upgrade from Palestine’s current status at the United Nations will change next to nothing about Palestine’s relationship with the United Nations. As a “Permanent Observer Entity” Palestinian representatives speak at the General Assembly, sponsor resolutions, and participate in key meetings at the UN. They just cannot vote, and  likewise do not pay membership dues to the UN. That will not alter with Palestine’s new status.

Likewise, Palestine’s membership to UN specialized agencies like the World Health Organization or International Atomic Energy Agency bears no formal relationship to what the General Assembly decides. This is significant because American legislation from the mid 1990s forces the US government to withhold payments to any UN entity that admits Palestine as a member. (The provision does not apply to “non-member state observers,” so American dues payments to the regular UN budget would remain intact.)

Membership to specialized agencies is determined by the members themselves. Last year, UNESCO’s member states admitted Palestine as a full member and lost US funding. Should the membership of the World Health Organization or IAEA admit Palestine as full members before these American laws are amended, global funding for things like Malaria control or nuclear monitoring could precipitously fall. For now, though, these are only things that may happen down the road, and are not an immediate consequence of Palestine’s upgraded status at the General Assembly.

The one international institution of note that is routinely cited as being swayed by the General Assembly vote is the International Criminal Court, which is not part of the United Nations at all. But, as I argue in this piece in The Daily Beast, the ICC is not likely to be swayed by Palestinian overtures to investigate Israel. Click though for a longer explanation of why I believe that to be the case. The short story is that the ICC has very little incentive to pursue charges against Israelis and doing so could be political suicide for the court.

The bottom line is that this vote carries some symbolic weight, but from the perspective of the UN it changes very little.