The Republic of South Sudan Will Be the Newest State Admitted the UN. Is Palestine Next?

On Wednesday, the General Assembly will vote to admit the Republic of South Sudan as its newest member state. No one really doubts the outcome. Each of the P5 Members put their mark on the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that lead to this moment.  Furthermore, one can expect an overwhelming vote of approval in the General Assembly. (I bet Sudan even votes in favor of the Republic of South Sudan’s membership).

Security Council approval followed by General Assembly recognition (or vice versa) is the standard mechanism by which a member state is admitted to the United Nations.  Come September, this will no doubt be on top of people’s minds as the Palestinians push for some sort of recognition at the United Nations General Assembly meeting.

In a very helpful explainer, the writer Bernard Avishai posts an email from Alvaro de Soto, a longtime United Nations diplomat and problem solver.  de Soto picks apart precisely what it takes to be recognized as a country and to become admitted to the UN:

But as a matter of international law, neither the UN nor any other international organization can give legal validity to the creation of a state. The UN is not in the recognition business; only states can recognise states.

Contrary to widespread belief, (except in a metaphorical sense) the UN did not create Israel; rather, Israelis used the approval by the UN General Assembly in resolution 181 of the partition plan as the basis for proclaiming the creation of Israel, which was then recognised by states. In 181 the General Assembly approved the partition plan (stage 1), within hours Israel proclaimed its independence (stage 2) and this was followed by recognitions (stage 3), including quickly those of the US and the then USSR. Israel’s application for membership in the UN was subsequent to these separate and discrete stages. Of course at the time it made its proclamation Israelis had reason to believe that they would receive recogniton from these important players.

The Palestinians would likely get widespread recognitions–arguably it already has a large number and the PLO is represented by ‘ambassadors’ in some of them, but they do not have, to my knowledge, advance certainty that if they proclaim a state they will receive the recognition of key players that can make the difference between UN membership and continued second-tier status–certainly the US is in doubt. Thus while they may improve their standing with a view to the continuing struggle to break free of Israeli occupation, they seem destined to fall short of what Israel achieved in 1947.

If the Palestinians were to pursue UN membership, a different procedure would apply. Ultimately UN membership is granted by the General Assembly if 2/3 of the members present and voting so decide, but the opportunity to take such a decisión only arises if the Security Council puts its positive stamp on a membership application. There is no bypass mechanism, no uniting-for peace procedure in case of Council deadlock: The drill is that a state aspiring to membership writes to the Secretary-General signifying its desire to be accepted. The Secretariat’s Office of Legal Affairs prepares a report on whether the basic formal legal requirements are met–including, presumably, whether the applicant actually constitutes a state. This report goes to the Security Council which makes a political assessment regarding whether the applicant meets the substantive requirements spelled out in the UN Charter–whether it is peace-loving and otherwise committed to the obligations arising from UN membership under the Charter, including its financial obligations, and whether the Council judges that it has the capacity to meet those obligations. The Council votes, with the usual requirements of 9 votes in favour and no permanent members voting against. If it is approved it goes to the General Assembly. If it is not, there will be no General Assembly vote.

De Soto makes the important point that Palestinian statehood has to happen before it is formally admitted to the United Nations. This is principally a matter bi-lateral relations between Palestine and other countries in the world.  Presumably, Palestinian membership to the United Nations will only happen once the United States is prepared to recognize Palestine as a sovereign state. And, in turn, that probably will only happen when Israel decides it is ready to formally recognize and independent Palestine.

Kosovo is a pretty good comparison.  So far, hundreds of countries around the world have recognized Kosovo’s independence, but it has not been admitted to the United Nations because of a Russian veto. Presumably, if Serbia (Russia’s ally) were willing to recognize Kosovo, Russia would drop its objection and Kosovo would be admitted.

So, this is all to say that what will happen in September is purely speculation until we know exactly what the General Assembly Resolution on Palestine will say.