Observer Status of Palestine at the United Nations

The Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations sent a letter to all Permanent Representatives and Permanent Observers of the United Nations on 15 January 1998, regarding the draft resolution on "Full participation of Palestine in the Work of the United Nations", which was not put to a vote by the General Assembly in December 1997, pending further consultations. The letter represents another element in follow up of the draft resolution. Its emphasis was on the significance attached to pursuing the issue by the Palestinian delegation and to putting the draft resolution to a vote in the near future. The letter is also part of an effort towards the achievement of broad acceptance on the matter among member states of the U.N.

On 12 February 1998, the Arab Group met and considered some changes to the draft resolution and agreed to request consideration of the matter by the General Assembly on the 16th of March. The Group also agreed to consult with other groups at the U.N. with the aim of arriving at a revised draft resolution to vote upon.

Along with the above-mentioned letter, the Observer Mission of Palestine circulated a memorandum entitled "Observer Status at the United Nations and Endeavors to Achieve Full Participation of Palestine in the Work of the Organization", which contained background information on observer status at the U.N., legal aspects in this regard, and a brief historical review on the status of Palestine at the U.N., as well as a synopsis of the recent endeavors to achieve full participation. The following are excerpts from the memorandum, highlighting its most important components:


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….

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 U.N. 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…. 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 U.N.…

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….

In May 1974, the Economic and Social Council 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…

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. The PLO has established a permanent observer mission since 1974 at U.N. headquarters in New York and another one in Geneva…

With regard to participation of the PLO in the Security Council, on 4 December 1975, at its 1859th meeting, the Security Council decided by a vote that an invitation should be extended to the PLO to participate in the debate on the situation in the Middle East and that that invitation would confer upon it the same rights of participation as those conferred upon a member state when it is invited to participate in the discussion under rule 37 of the provisional rules of procedure of the Council. That invitation was repeated on numerous occasions and, as of February 1994, Palestine has been invited to participate in the discussion without the right to vote, in accordance with the provisional rules of procedure and the established practice.

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".

In resolution 43/160 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 PLO was entitled to have its communications issued and circulated as official documents of the U.N. The same right was also granted to SWAPO (Namibia) in the same resolution. To date, no other observer enjoys that right.

…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 U.N. system.

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.

Endeavors to Achieve Full Participation of Palestine in the Work of the United Nations:

Over the years, Palestine has been accorded more extensive rights of participation than other entities participating in an observer capacity. The specific above-mentioned developments related to the status, rights and privileges of Palestine at the U.N. undoubtedly reflect clear intentions on the part of member states for their own reasons to treat Palestine in a special way or to create a "unique status" for it. Practical results, however, have not always been congruous with such clear intentions….

The new complexities of the international agenda, including the complexities of issues related to the question of Palestine and the situation in the Middle East, have made it more and more cumbersome for the observer mission of Palestine to maintain the required level of engagement and effectiveness without clear, harmonized guidelines for its participation.

Recently, the responsibilities of Palestine have increased, particularly with the new developments on the Palestinian scene, including the holding of the general democratic Palestinian elections and the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority with the duty of redressing the destruction caused by the long years of occupation and building national institutions towards the establishment of an independent Palestinian state…

In light of the above, the full participation of Palestine in the work of the U.N. was considered and a draft resolution, A/52/L.53/Rev.1, was introduced. The draft does not seek full membership for Palestine in the U.N. It does, however, seek additional rights and privileges to be conferred upon Palestine, in addition to harmonizing the existing ones, and as a practical way to do that, the text confers upon Palestine similar rights and privileges of participation as those conferred upon member states, with the specific exception of voting and candidature…

This should include participation in the general debate of the General Assembly; normal inscription in the list of speakers under all agenda items, whether in the plenary or in the main committees; and the right of reply. It would also include the right to cosponsor draft resolutions and the right to raise points of order on issues of direct relevance. It should also result in a new seating arrangement on the floor of the Assembly as well as a new listing in the book of Permanent Missions to the U.N. and other protocol and internal arrangements.