The Multilateralist

Ban Ki-moon and the Palestine vote

For the Palestinians, the road to formal membership in the United Nations is closed, at least for now; the United States has made clear that it will use its veto in the Security Council to prevent that. And without the Council’s blessing, there’s no way for the General Assembly to itself make Palestine a UN ...

For the Palestinians, the road to formal membership in the United Nations is closed, at least for now; the United States has made clear that it will use its veto in the Security Council to prevent that. And without the Council’s blessing, there’s no way for the General Assembly to itself make Palestine a UN member.

For the Palestinian leadership, the leading fallback option is achieving an upgraded observer status at the organization. Currently, Palestine is an observer–but not an observer state. In official UN directories it is described, wordily, as an "Entity Having Received a Standing Invitation to Participate as an Observer in the Sessions and the Work of the General Assembly." That puts Palestine one rung below the Holy See, currently the lone non-member observer state. But there’s plenty of past precedent for the category.  West Germany, South Korea, Switzerland and a few others have held the title.  Because of its tradition of neutrality, Switzerland for many years chose the designation over full membership.  Most states have been observers because the route to full membership was temporarily blocked by the Security Council (as was the case with West Germany and South Korea).

Observer status at the UN is an organic development without clear procedures. The UN Charter says nothing about the status or when it should be assigned. What’s more, it appears that the General Assembly itself has not always been involved in the process–at least formally. As far as I’ve been able to discover, the secretary-general himself in some cases accorded countries observer status without a formal General Assembly vote (although undboubtedly after informal consultation).

The secretary-general’s past role in doling out observer status raises the question of whether Ban Ki-moon could somehow assert himself in the current debate. He might, for example, simply assign Palestine a new status and avoid an acrimonious debate and vote. Thus far, Ban has mostly stayed above the fray, insisting that statehood and membership are matters for the states.   There are several obstacles to any greater involvement by the secretary-general. One is political: there’s very little incentive for Ban to insert himself into a high-stakes dispute. The other is based on precedent. The General Assembly has already been heavily involved in determining Palestine’s status and voted in 1998 to give Palestine its current designation (the Palestine Liberation Organization became an observer in 1974). While the secretary-general might technically have the authority to offer Palestine a new status, the General Assembly has effectively carved out this issue as its own.  As one UN diplomat told me, "the secretary-general cannot act unilaterally." 

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