Status of Palestine at the United Nations
Background on Observer Status at the UN
The Charter of the United Nations is silent on the issue of observer status. The issue rests purely on practice and has been set on a firm legal basis through discussions and decisions in the General Assembly. There is more than one type of observer, which includes non-member states; intergovernmental organizations; national liberation movements; and beginning 1991 other entities as well. Specialized agencies and related organizations are also considered observers.
The process of acquisition of observer status is far from uniform. The process for admission of non-member states to the United Nations (U.N.) as observers is handled by the Secretariat through the Secretary-General. It has been the policy of the Secretary-General to provide observer facilities in the General Assembly to non-member states that have communicated to him their decisions to establish observer missions. The General Assembly, however, is the highest, competent decision-maker with regard to the admission of observers (with the exception of non-member states). In some cases, a particular organ, in accordance with its own rules of procedure and terms of reference, has invited observers to its sessions.
Rights and privileges of observers vary and precedents refer to a broad spectrum of "activities" or "power". Variations stem from the different process of acquisition of observer status, the language of the relevant General Assembly resolution granting the observer status and any additional resolution(s) granting more rights and privileges to a particular observer, as well as the established practice in this regard, including the interpretation by the Secretariat of those resolutions.
These variations manifest themselves through differences in access to U.N. principal organs, U.N. subsidiary organs and U.N. conferences; differences in access to the areas and facilities provided for participation in the U.N. system; differences in participation in substantive issues and participation in procedural issues; and finally differences on issues related to immunities and privileges.
Since 1948, seventeen non-member states appointed permanent observers to the U.N. Switzerland was the first and the same process that was followed in its case was also followed in the case of other non-member states. At present, two non-member states maintain observer missions at U.N. headquarters, namely the Holy See and Switzerland. With regard to inter-governmental organizations the Assembly adopted resolution 253 (III) of 1948, inviting the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States to be present as an observer at the sessions of the General Assembly. The same or similar language was used to invite the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States (1950) and the administrative Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity (1965). Beginning 1974, with the invitation to the European Community (EC), the language of relevant resolutions developed into inviting the inter-governmental organizations to participate in the sessions and work of the General Assembly in the capacity of observer. At the present time, twenty-one inter-governmental organizations enjoy permanent observer status in the General Assembly.
The U.N. recognized national liberation movements and granted observer status to them. Such recognition basically originates from the policy of decolonization, particularly in Africa. The significance of the participation of national liberation movements has not only been in areas concerning decolonization and the right to self-determination but also in areas of economic and social concerns. They have been perceived as future authoritative governments that will be responsible for the social and economic well being of their people. Hence, the proto-state perception developed.
In 1974, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was granted observer status by resolution 3237 (XXIX). The resolution, inter alia, invited the PLO to participate in the sessions and the work of the General Assembly in the capacity of observer and invited the PLO to participate in the sessions and the work of all international conferences convened under the auspices of the General Assembly in the capacity of observer. The resolution also considered that the PLO is entitled to participate as an observer in the sessions and the work of all international conferences convened under the auspices of other organs of the United Nations.
In that same year, in resolution 3280 (XXIX), the General Assembly invited national liberation movements, recognized by the Organization of African Unity, to participate in the relevant work of the main committees of the General Assembly and its concerned subsidiary organs, as well as in conferences, seminars and other meetings held under the auspices of the U.N. which relate to their countries. Accordingly, ANC and PAC (South Africa), as well as SWAPO (Namibia) were invited. Two years later, the General Assembly adopted resolution 31/152 granting observer status to SWAPO, using the same language as resolution 3237 (XXIX).
In 1990, the Assembly adopted resolution 45/6 granting observer status to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the same was done at a later stage with the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. With regard to specialized agencies, at the present time there are thirteen of them that are observers in accordance with relationship agreements with the U.N.
The types of observers referred to earlier basically describe the nature of the entities. They do not seem to reflect specific categories at the U.N. Observers of the same type have not always been accorded the same rights and privileges, and the types do not seem to fit into any predetermined order in terms of those rights and privileges.
With regard to non-governmental organizations, article 71 of the Charter provides that "the Economic and Social Council may make suitable arrangements for consultations with non-governmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence ." Currently, efforts are underway to increase the role of non-governmental organizations in the United Nations. Some member states are suggesting the need for participation by non-governmental organizations in the work of the General Assembly or even all principal organs.
Developments related to the Palestine Liberation Organization and later to Palestine
In May 1964, the Palestine National Council sent formal notification to the U.N. Secretary-General regarding the establishment of the PLO and, in October 1965, the Special Political Committee, at the request of some Arab states, decided that a PLO delegation be allowed to attend meetings of the Committee and present a statement, without implying recognition. The PLO participated in the discussions of the Committee under the agenda item of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in much the same way until 1973.
On 10 December 1969, the General Assembly adopted resolution 2535 B (XXIV), which reaffirmed the inalienable rights of the people of Palestine. On 8 December 1970, the General Assembly adopted resolution 2672 C (XXV), which recognized that the people of Palestine are entitled to equal rights and self-determination in accordance with the Charter of the U.N.
On 12 December 1973, the General Assembly adopted resolution 3102 (XXVIII), which, inter alia, urged that national liberation movements be invited to participate as observers in the Diplomatic Conference on the Reaffirmation and Development of International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts. In May 1974, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) adopted resolution 1835 (LVI) and 1840 (LVI), inviting representatives of national liberation movements recognized by the Organization of African Unity and/or the League of Arab States to participate without the right to vote in the World Population Conference and the World Food Conference, respectively. These conferences invited the PLO to participate and, by late 1974, the PLO had already participated as an observer in several other international conferences, such as the Third U.N. Conference on the Law of the Sea.
On 14 October 1974, the General Assembly, through resolution 3210 (XXIX) recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and invited it to participate in the deliberations of the General Assembly on the Question of Palestine in plenary meetings. Accordingly, Yasser Arafat addressed the Assembly on 13 November 1974. With the exception of the ceremonial occasion when Pope Paul VI addressed the Assembly, he was the first representative of an entity other than a member state to address the Assembly.
On 22 November 1974, the General Assembly adopted resolution 3237 (XXIX) granting observer status to the PLO (mentioned above). The PLO has established a permanent observer mission since 1974 at U.N. headquarters in New York and another one in Geneva.
On 8 May 1975, ECOSOC adopted resolution 1949 (LVIII), amending rule 73 of its rules of procedure to provide for the participation of national liberation movements as observers in the deliberations of the Council. In April 1977, the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) adopted resolution 36 (IV), recommending to ECOSOC the amendment of ESCWAs terms of reference so that the PLO could be included in its membership. In July 1977, ECOSOC adopted the recommendation in resolution 2089 (LEXIS) and the PLO became a full member of ESCWA.
On 4 December 1975, at its 1859th meeting, the Security Council considered a request by a Member State (Egypt) for the participation of the PLO in the debate of the Council. The request was not made pursuant to rule 37 or rule 39 of the provisional rules of procedure of the Council. The Security Council decided on that day by a vote that an invitation should be extended to the representative of the PLO to participate in the debate and that the invitation would confer upon it the "same rights of participation as are conferred when a Member State is invited to participate under rule 37." That invitation, upon vote by the Council, was repeated henceforth on numerous occasions.
On 23 September 1982, in a letter to a private counselor-at-law, the Office of Legal Affairs stated "as indicated above, a review of the procedural practice of the United Nations shows that the Palestine Liberation Organization now has a unique status in the United Nations with extensive and continuing rights of participation. Even outside the United Nations framework, the overwhelming majority of states formally recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and have established direct links with it on a bilateral basis, sometimes even granting it full diplomatic status". On 2 April 1986, the Asian Group of the U.N. decided to accept the PLO as a full member.
In resolution 43/160A of 9 December 1988, adopted under the agenda item entitled "Observer status of national liberation movements recognized by the Organization of African Unity and/or the League of Arab States", the Assembly decided that the Palestine Liberation Organization was entitled to have its communications issued and circulated as official documents of the United Nations. The same right was also granted to SWAPO in the same resolution. To date, no other observer enjoys that right.
That same year, in resolution 43/177 of 15 December 1988, the General Assembly acknowledged the proclamation of the State of Palestine by the Palestine National Council on 15 November 1988 and decided, inter alia, that the designation "Palestine" should be used in place of the designation "Palestine Liberation Organization" in the United Nations system.
On 2 March 1988, the General Assembly, in a resumed session, adopted resolution 42/229 A & B, which reaffirmed that the Permanent Observer Mission of the PLO to the UN is covered by the United Nations Headquarters Agreement and which called upon the U.S. to abide by this agreement. In resolution B, the Assembly decided to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion. Several other resolutions were adopted later in this regard until the U.S. ceased its attempts to close down the PLO Mission to the U.N.
On 9 February 1989, at its 2845th meeting, the Security Council considered a request made directly by the Observer Mission of Palestine for the participation of the Observer of Palestine in the debate of the Council. Again, the request was not made pursuant to rule 37 or rule 39 and the Security Council decided by a vote to invite the Observer of Palestine to participate "with the same rights of participation of rule 37." That invitation, upon vote by the Council, was repeated henceforth on numerous occasions.
On 28 February 1994, at its 3340th meeting, the same request was made by the Observer Mission of Palestine and, after negotiations aimed at accepting the request without a vote, the Council decided to invite the Observer of Palestine to participate in the current debate of the Council "in accordance with the rules of procedure and the previous practice in this regard." That invitation was also repeated on numerous occasions.
On 9 November 1994, the General Assembly adopted without a vote resolution 49/12, approving the Report of the Preparatory Committee for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Nations. In that report, the Committee authorized its Chairman to send a letter to the Permanent Observer of Palestine, confirming that the arrangements mentioned in General Assembly resolution 48/215B of 1994 for the Special Commemorative Meeting of the General Assembly on the occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the U.N., in addition to applying to all member and observer states, shall also apply to Palestine, in its capacity as observer. Further, the Assembly adopted resolution 49/12B of 30 May 1995, which included Palestine, in its capacity as observer, along with member and observer states in the organizing process of the list of speakers for the Commemorative Meeting.
On 7 July 1998, the General Assembly overwhelming adopted resolution 52/250 entitled: Participation of Palestine in the work of the United Nations. The resolution conferred upon Palestine additional rights and privileges of participation that had previously been exclusive to Member States. These include the right to participate in the general debate held at the start of each session of the General Assembly, the right to cosponsor resolutions and the right to raise points of order on Palestinian and Middle East issues. The resolution also changes the seating of Palestine to a location directly after non-Member States, with the allocation of six seats for delegates (observers get two seats). The resolution also makes several important improvements related to participation in the debate under different agenda items. In short, the resolution upgraded Palestines representation at the UN to a unique and unprecedented level, somewhere in between the other observers, on the one hand, and Member States on the other.
On 28 October 1998, Mr. Yassir Arafat, Chairman of the PLO and President of the Palestinian Authority, addressed the 53rd General Assembly plenary under agenda item: General Debate. This marked the first time in the history of the UN that an entity that is not a member state participated under that item. Palestines participation was without restrictions with regard to speaking order in the debate. During the 53rd Session of the General Assembly, Palestine also co-sponsored 21 resolutions and one decision. Both of these were direct results of resolution 52/250,
In November 1998, the U.N. secretariat made some changes regarding Palestine in the book of Permanent Missions to the United Nations ("the Blue Book"). The location of the category under which Palestine is listed was moved and placed immediately after non-member states and before the inter-governmental organizations. The title of Palestines category was also changed to "Entities Having Received a Standing Invitation to Participate as Observers in the Sessions and the Work of the General Assembly and Maintaining Permanent Observer Missions at Headquarters" instead of "Organizations Having received a standing invitation to participate as observers in the sessions and work of the General Assembly . . ." Earlier, the word "Office" was used instead of "Mission." Another such change, at the request of the Mission, was the use of the title "Ambassador" in conjunction with "Permanent Observer of Palestine".