What's In Blue

Meeting on the Palestinian Application for UN Membership

Tomorrow (8 April), Security Council members will hold closed consultations, followed by an open meeting, to discuss the Palestinian request, conveyed in a 2 April letter to the Secretary-General, for renewed consideration of its 23 September 2011 application for UN membership. The Secretary-General transmitted the request to the Security Council in a 3 April letter (S/2024/286). The admission of new members to the UN is decided by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. Generally, the next step following an application for membership is for the Council to hold a formal meeting and refer the application to its standing Committee on the Admission of New Members.

At tomorrow’s consultations, Council members will determine whether the Committee will deliberate this matter or whether the Council addresses it directly. Rule 59 of the Security Council’s provisional rules of procedure states: “[u]nless the Security Council decides otherwise, the application shall be referred by the President to a committee of the Security Council upon which each member of the Security Council shall be represented.” If the Council agrees to refer the State of Palestine’s admission request to the Committee, that Committee meeting could be held tomorrow afternoon. Following its deliberations, if the Committee eventually recommends admission, it usually presents the Council with a draft resolution. If there is no disagreement over the Committee’s recommendation, the Council would then adopt this resolution. In recent years, for example in the case of South Sudan in July 2011, this has been done “in accordance with the understanding reached in prior consultations” and without a meeting or a vote.

Since 1971, the Council has generally chosen to refer membership applications to its standing Committee, but in the past, it has also made direct recommendations on admission without referral to the Committee. If there is opposition to referral, the President of the Council could propose that the referral of the matter to the Committee be put on the agenda of the Council and call for a vote.  This would be a procedural vote, requiring nine votes and vetoes would not be applicable. If the proposal is not adopted, the application would then be addressed by the Security Council. At this stage, a Council member could choose to table a draft resolution recommending to the General Assembly the applicant’s admission to the UN.

As admission to UN membership is a substantive issue, it requires the agreement of at least nine of the Council’s 15 members and the veto applies. Past practice has shown numerous cases where an applicant’s admission request has been denied due to a veto cast by at least one permanent member of the Security Council. If the Council does not recommend the application or postpones its consideration of the application, the Council then must submit a special report to the General Assembly, which in turn could ask the Council to reconsider. No admission of a new member has been vetoed since 1976.

In the General Assembly, the admission of a new member is an “important question”, which requires a two-thirds majority. While there are time limits contained in rules 59 and 60 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure regarding the referral of a membership application to the General Assembly, they appear intended to give the General Assembly sufficient time to consider the Council’s recommendation rather than requiring the Committee or the Council to make a decision within a certain timeframe. It is possible that if the Council is not ready to decide on the Palestinian application, it could choose to send it to the Committee for an indefinite length of time. (For more information on the procedure and past practice relating to the process of admission of a new UN member, see our 21 September 2011 update report.)

On 2 April, the chairs of the Arab Group at the UN (Saudi Arabia), Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (Mauritania), and the Non-Aligned Movement (Uganda) sent a letter to the Secretary-General, the President of the General Assembly, and the President of the Security Council expressing support for the admission of the State of Palestine to UN membership.

The Security Council is expected to hold its quarterly meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” on 18 April at ministerial level. If there has been little movement on the renewed consideration of the State of Palestine’s application for UN membership, this matter may be taken up at or before this meeting.

The request for renewed consideration of the application also comes at a time when members are negotiating a draft resolution initiated by France on the war between Israel and Hamas, which calls for an immediate ceasefire and unimpeded provision and distribution of humanitarian aid throughout Gaza. It seems that the draft text contains language noting that 139 member states have recognised the State of Palestine and expressing the intent to welcome the State of Palestine as a full member of the UN.


According to rule 58 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure, applications for admission to membership in the UN are submitted to the Secretary-General. The application must include a declaration made in a formal instrument accepting the obligations in the UN Charter. Article 4 of the UN Charter is clear that only “states” may apply to be admitted to the UN. It requires that applicants be “peace-loving”, that they accept the obligations contained in the Charter and that, in the judgement of the organisation, they are “able and willing” to carry out the obligations.

An application for admission therefore must be from an entity which meets the criteria for statehood, including a defined territory and a recognised government. Precedents confirm, however, that this does not rule out applicants in situations where there remain significant disputes about the territorial boundaries. Precedents also confirm that applicants do not have to achieve universal recognition before they can be admitted. In 1950, Secretary-General Trygve Lie wrote a memo (S/1466) advising the Security Council that in effect admission to the UN could not be conditioned on recognition of the applicant by all member states.

In a 23 September 2011 letter to the Secretary-General, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally submitted the Palestinian application for UN membership. The letter contained a declaration in a formal instrument stating that the “State of Palestine is a peace-loving nation and that it accepts the obligations contained in the Charter of the United Nations and solemnly undertakes to fulfill them”.

After the Secretary-General transmitted the letter to the president of the Security Council and General Assembly in a note, the president of the Council circulated the note to all Council members and called for consultations on 26 September 2011 to discuss how to proceed with the application. On 28 September 2011, the Security Council met in an open formal meeting and referred the matter to the standing Committee on the Admission of New Members. The Committee held two formal meetings, on 30 September and 2 November 2011, to consider the application. In between the formal meetings, the Committee held five informal meetings, four at expert level and one at permanent representative level. On 11 November 2011, the Committee transmitted its report to the Security Council, which stated that it had concluded its work but was unable to reach a unanimous recommendation on the Palestinian application. It seems that although the majority of members were open to the Council recommending the State of Palestine as a UN member to the General Assembly, there were two members who opposed doing so.

Status of the State of Palestine in the UN

In 1974, the General Assembly adopted resolution 3237(XXIX), approving the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as an observer. In December 1988, in resolution 43/177, the General Assembly acknowledged “the proclamation of the State of Palestine” and decided “that the designation ‘Palestine’” should be used in place of the PLO without prejudice to the observer status and functions of the PLO “in conformity with relevant UN resolutions and practice”. The resolution stopped short of acknowledging Palestine as a state, and in effect, maintained Palestine in the non-state observer category.

In July 1998, the General Assembly, in resolution 52/250, enhanced the participation privileges of Palestine in the UN system by defining better treatment for Palestine in terms of making proposals and seating. Again, this resolution contained language which made it clear that Palestine was still being accorded a lesser status than a state. In effect, the resolution elevated Palestine to a new sui generis observer status, still less than a state but higher than all other observers.

On 27 September 2012, Abbas indicated that the State of Palestine intended to seek a General Assembly resolution upgrading its status at the UN from “permanent observer” to “non-member observer state”. On 5 September 2012, the League of Arab States (LAS) endorsed this effort as an alternative approach to the State of Palestine’s bid for full UN membership in 2011. On 29 November 2012, the General Assembly adopted resolution 67/19, in which it accorded Palestine the status of a non-member observer state of the UN.

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