Trying to beat Palestine on a technicality

Trying to beat Palestine on a technicality

Steven Rosen has a piece up on the site today arguing that the impending U.N. General Assembly vote recognizing the Palestinian state will be illegitimate, as Palestine doesn’t meet international law’s minimum standards for nationhood:

According to the prevailing legal standard, the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, a "state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states." Both the Hamas-controlled Palestinian entity in Gaza and the rival Fatah-governed Palestinian entity in the West Bank can be said to meet all four of these criteria of the law of statehood. The one on which the United Nations will vote does not.

I’m enough of a dork to be gratified that someone besides me on this site is writing about the Montevideo Convention, but I don’t think this is a particularly strong case for supporters of Israel to make. Montevideo is a rather quaint set of criteria with little actual relevance in the Calvinball world of contemporary sovereignty disputes. This is doubly true when it comes to U.N. recognition.

This is a body, after all, that took the geographically absurd position of recognizing the government in Taipei as the legitimate governing authority of mainland China until 1971 and today doesn’t recognize Taiwan — despite it clearly meeting the Montevideo standards. There are a handful of "Limbo World" states that do meet the criteria but are not members, and plenty of member states that don’t — how defined are Georgia or Serbia’s borders these days? Not to mention Somalia’s or new member South Sudan’s?

As for the fact that there are competing centers of power within what would be Palestine, that’s not really a realistic standard to apply. I was recently in Liberia and had the chance to travel to the city of Gbarnga, Charles Taylor’s capital for much of the country’s civil war. Should the United Nations have recognized a second Liberian government based in Gbarnga, or expelled Liberia altogether, because the government in Monrovia had lost control of much of the country? It doesn’t seem a very practical or advisable way to conduct international diplomacy.

U.N. member states come into being not because they meet an objective standard for nationhood. As I’ve written before, if that were true, the Palestinian state would probably have been admitted long before South Sudan. Countries become member states after two-thirds of the General Assembly votes for them and the Security Council approves. It’s a political process, not a legal one, and wishing it away with a technicality is unlikely to be effective.