Friday, November 30, 2012

Palestine Recognized as a Country by the U.N.

(Keep up with changes to Palestine's situation: view all Palestine updates.)

This Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly voted to change Palestine's status in the organization from "observer" to "observer state". This is the first time the international body has recognized Palestine as a state, giving it the same status enjoyed by U.N. non-member Vatican City. 

Map of Israel with the occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights highlighted
The State of Palestine claims the West Bank and Gaza, which are largely occupied by Israel. The Golan Heights are not part of the Palestinian Territories. Public domain map (source).
Until this Thursday, Palestine was a partially recognized country, acknowledged by some U.N. member nations, but not by the U.N. itself (See also: How many countries are there in the world?). Although its delegation has had observer status at the U.N. since 1974, it was never classified as a "state", being treated as something between a country and a non-government organization. Now, the organization has officially voted to change Palestine's status to "observer state" - effectively a recognition that it's an independent country, even though it's still not a U.N. member.

The Palestinian delegation campaigned to join the U.N. as a member last year, but had to give up after the U.S. promised to veto the application in the U.N. Security Council. Observer status, on the other hand, is determined by a majority vote in the U.N. General Assembly, which no single country can veto. That vote happened on November 29th, with members voting 138 to 9 in favor of granting Palestine observer state status (41 members abstained, and 5 were absent from the vote; see the full breakdown of national votes).

The only other U.N. observer state is the Holy See, which represents Vatican City. Many other countries have been observer states in the past, but all of them have since been accepted into the U.N. as full members (the last to join were Switzerland in 2002 and North and South Korea in 1991). While yesterday's events may help settle Palestine's legal status, the situation on the ground is more complicated, with most of the country's claimed territory under the control of Israel. The recognized Palestinian government also does not currently administer the Gaza Strip, one of the Palestinian Territories, which is instead controlled by right-wing opposition party Hamas. But despite their differences, the leadership of Hamas supported the campaign for statehood at the U.N.

Document: Full text of U.N. General Assembly resolution authorizing state observer status for Palestine

Color-coded map showing how each U.N. member voted on the General Assembly resolution recognizing Palestine as an observer state
Results of U.N. General Assembly vote on granting observer state status to Palestine. Green: In favor; Red: Against; Yellow: Abstaining; Blue: Absent; Black: Palestine. Map by B1mbo/Wikimedia (source). License: CC BY-SA

What will change with Palestine's new status?
Since the change is to Palestine's political status, the effects will be mostly in the domain of politics. Its actual role within the U.N. General Assembly will change little, because observers' privileges are mostly assigned on a case-by-case basis anyway. But now other U.N. agencies are more likely to consider Palestine for membership. It already successfully joined UNESCO last year, but was rejected from the U.N.-connected International Criminal Court (ICC) on the basis that members need to be states. Possible Palestinian membership in the ICC has received a lot of political attention, because it would allow Palestine to pursue war crimes charges against the Israeli government.

Flag of Palestine Country Name:  
• Palestine (English)
Filasṭīn (Arabic)
Official Name:  
• State of Palestine (English)
• Dawlat Filasṭin (Arabic)
• Jerusalem (claimed)
Ramallah (administrative)
The current Israeli administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhyahu, supported by the U.S., insists that the statehood bid violated the terms of the Oslo Accords by bypassing the existing peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. And in the weeks leading up to the vote, Netanyahu had threatened to punish the PLO for seeking statehood, possibly by withholding money from taxes that Israel collects on the Palestinian government's behalf. But his government seemed to back down as the campaign came to an end, downplaying the results of the vote and saying they wouldn't retaliate unless Palestine tries to take them to court in the ICC. Some Israelis, such as the previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, actually supported the statehood bid.

Another area to watch will be Palestine's treatment by geographers: since the most common definition of "independent country" in maps and other publications is "member or observer state of the U.N.", Palestine may begin showing up on more maps and lists of countries from now on. Although it's already shown on many maps, it's usually indicated as special-case disputed territory rather than a country. Alternatively, if Palestine's nationhood proves too controversial, we could possibly see some change in how independent countries are defined in maps and books. In the U.S., some may choose to follow the lead of the American government, which currently recognizes all U.N. members and observers except Palestine.

Further Reading: Q&A - Palestinian bid for upgraded UN status (BBC), Why Palestine Won Big at the U.N. (TIME)