May 2024 Monthly Forecast

Posted 30 April 2024
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In Hindsight: Applying to be a Member of the UN: The Palestinian Case

On 18 April, the US vetoed a draft Security Council resolution that would have recommended that “the State of Palestine be admitted to membership in the United Nations”. Twelve Council members voted in favour of the draft resolution, while two abstained (Switzerland and the UK). The last veto on a membership application was on 15 November 1976, when the US vetoed the application of the newly established Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.

On 3 April, the Secretary-General conveyed to the Security Council a letter from the Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine that sought renewed consideration of its 23 September 2011 application in the month of April. There were times in the last 13 years when it appeared that the State of Palestine might revive its membership bid, which the Council had failed to agree on, but no further action was taken. At the time of the 2011 application, the political situation was very different, with diplomatic activity focused on getting the parties to resume direct negotiations. The April request came at one of the most volatile periods in the region following the 7 October 2023 large-scale attacks against Israel led by Hamas, and the ensuing massive airstrikes and ground operation carried out by Israel on the Gaza Strip.

In this In Hindsight, we reflect on how the membership process unfolded in accordance with the UN Charter and other guiding procedural documents, its broader historical context, and possible next steps.

Procedure and Process: The Application of the State of Palestine

Becoming a member of the UN is a multi-step process involving the Secretary-General, the Council, and the General Assembly. Article 4(1) of the UN Charter, rule 60 of the Security Council’s provisional rules of procedure, and rule 136 of the General Assembly’s rules of procedure lay out the UN membership criteria: it is open to states that are “peace-loving”, accept the obligations in the Charter, and are able and willing to carry them out. Article 4(2) of the Charter notes that admission of “any such state to membership” will be “effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”.

Rule 58 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure states that applications for UN membership are submitted to the Secretary-General and should include a declaration made in a formal instrument accepting the obligations of the UN Charter. On 2 April, the Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine submitted a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres requesting the Security Council’s renewed consideration of its September 2011 application for membership to the UN, in accordance with rule 58. (The September 2011 application was initiated after the US vetoed a draft resolution (S/2011/24) in February 2011 reaffirming that “Israeli settlements established in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace”.)

Rule 59 of the Council’s provisional rules directs the Secretary-General to transmit the application to the Security Council, which will then normally refer it to a committee. The Committee on the Admission of New Members, a subsidiary body comprising all 15 Council members, is tasked with examining “any application referred to it” and reporting its conclusions to the Council.

Five days after the Secretary-General submitted the State of Palestine’s application to the Council (S/2024/286), its president, Ambassador Vanessa Frazier of Malta, convened a public meeting on 8 April, following consultations earlier that morning, and announced that she was referring the application to the committee on the Admission of New Members. The Council’s practice in this regard has varied: since 1969, applications were generally referred to the committee, whereas the Council chose to deal with all applications itself between 1952 and 1968.

The committee met on 8 and 11 April, and on 16 April its chair wrote to the president of the Council transmitting the committee’s report. The report stated that the committee had concluded its consideration of the application and “was unable to make a unanimous recommendation to the Security Council” regarding “whether the application met all the criteria for membership set out in Article 4 of the Charter”. This is the same conclusion it reached in 2011.

On the same day that the committee submitted its report, Algeria circulated a draft resolution recommending to the General Assembly that the State of Palestine be granted UN membership (S/2024/312). In 2011, following the committee’s inability to reach agreement, no member had taken this step. At that time, it seems there was concern that a draft resolution might not garner the necessary nine votes in favour, while on the other hand, if nine affirmative votes were found, there was little appetite for forcing a US veto. In 2024, with the crisis in Gaza dominating the agenda, support from more Council members seemed likely.

Speaking at the 18 April meeting, Council members—as well as the State of Palestine and Israel—gave their views on whether the State of Palestine met the criteria for UN membership as outlined in Article 4 of the UN Charter, including contrasting perspectives as to whether it qualifies as a “state” and is “peace-loving” (S/PV.9609).

Several members—including Algeria, China, France, the Republic of Korea, Sierra Leone, and Slovenia—argued that granting the State of Palestine member state status at the UN would advance the two-state solution (that is, two sovereign states peacefully co-existing side by side). Three others maintained that membership would be premature, with the UK and the US calling for reforms to be made by the Palestinians and Switzerland stating that membership at present “is not conducive to easing the situation and finding a peaceful solution, given the great instability and the conflict on the ground”.

In casting its veto, the US said that “Palestinian statehood…will only come from direct negotiations between the parties”, a perspective that contrasted sharply with the views of some other Council members. Guyana stated that the criteria set out in Article 4 “are the only ones to be taken into consideration” for the admission of members to the UN. China argued that making negotiations a pre-condition for Palestinian statehood was “putting the cart before the horse”, while Slovenia said that UN membership is “not an alternative to negotiations, but complementary to them”. Some members underlined that they expect efforts to continue. Algeria stated that its “efforts will not cease until the State of Palestine becomes a full Member of the United Nations”. Ecuador expressed its hope that soon “conditions will be in place that will allow the Council, unanimously, to recommend the admission of Palestine as a full Member of the United Nations”. And Sierra Leone maintained that, as a matter of justice, UN membership for the State of Palestine “cannot be denied”.

If the Algerian draft resolution had been adopted, constituting a positive recommendation from the Council, the General Assembly would have been required to vote on the Palestinian membership application. Since the admission of any new member is an “important question”, a two-thirds majority of members present and voting is needed to approve an application, under rule 136 of the General Assembly’s rules of procedure.

What’s Next?

When the Council cannot agree to recommend a new member for admission (as in the current case of the State of Palestine) or postpones consideration of an application, it has to submit “a special report to the General Assembly with a complete record of the discussion”, as described in rule 60 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure. The president of the Council sent this report to the General Assembly on 23 April 2024.

Vetoes of membership applications were common during the Cold War, blocking the admission of new members 59 times. The USSR cast 51 vetoes on membership applications, the US six. There was one membership veto apiece during this era by the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China.[1]

A new element is the “veto initiative”, namely General Assembly resolution 76/262 of 26 April 2022, which requires the General Assembly to meet within ten days whenever a veto is cast and for the Council to submit a special report on each use of the veto to the General Assembly. However, according to this resolution, the “veto initiative” is not triggered if the General Assembly is meeting in “an emergency special session on the same situation”. Members therefore had the option of resuming the Tenth Emergency Special Session (ESS) on “Illegal Israeli actions in occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory”, which was initiated in 1997, in lieu of a dedicated General Assembly meeting on the US veto on Palestinian membership.

This appeared the most likely scenario on 24 April, when the chairs of the Arab Group, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and the Non-Aligned Movement wrote to the president of the General Assembly, citing the US veto and requesting the resumption of the Tenth Emergency Special Session (ESS). However, it seems that the ESS could not meet within the ten-day period after the veto and expects to do so on 10 May. In light of this, the president of the General Assembly wrote to all member states on 26 April informing them that he would convene a General Assembly meeting under the agenda item “use of the veto”, as well as an ESS.

The Arab Group is expected to present a draft resolution at the ESS. In accordance with rule 137 of the General Assembly’s rules of procedure, the resolution could request the Council to reconsider the application of the State of Palestine. This was done in the case of Viet Nam on 26 November 1976, when the General Assembly adopted a resolution expressing “deep regret and concern” that “one negative vote by a permanent member of the Security Council prevented the adoption of the draft resolution supported by 14 members” and asked the Council to reconsider the matter favourably and in accordance with Article 4 of the Charter.[2]

The General Assembly could also recommend that permanent members of the Council consult to reach agreement, as was the case in 1947 with the applications of Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Mongolia [resolution 113 (II) A].

But the Council can choose to postpone indefinitely the reconsideration of an application when it comes back from the General Assembly, as it did with 14 states between 1947 and 1950, in a number of cases citing the need for consultations among permanent members.

As well, the General Assembly could consider adopting a resolution according additional rights to the State of Palestine, which would also require a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting. In response to the deadlock in the Council on Palestinian membership in 2011, the General Assembly in 2012 adopted a draft resolution according the State of Palestine “non-member observer State status”. It had previously been an “observer entity”. This has given it the right to participate in all UN proceedings, but not to vote on draft resolutions and decisions in its main organs and bodies. In 2019, when the State of Palestine served as chair of the Group of 77 developing countries and China (G77), the General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/73/5 according the State of Palestine additional rights for a year. These rights included being able to submit proposals and amendments and introduce them, to exercise a right of reply and raise procedural motions, including points of order and requests to put proposals to a vote.[3]

If the General Assembly requests the Council to reconsider the application, it is likely that the Council will take up this matter again in the coming months. Council members, however, do not foresee any change in the positions taken during the vote in April. The General Assembly is unlikely to let the matter end here, and all eyes are now on possible action in that organ.

[1] In October 1971, the People’s Republic of China assumed the seat previously held by the Republic of China in the General Assembly and the Security Council.

[2] A/RES/31/21

[3] Also see SCR Procedure 7 April 2024  article on “Palestine’s request for reconsideration of its 2011 application for UN memberships raises several procedural issues”.

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