Report from Panel on Palestine at the UN

As a new year begins at the United Nations, representatives and NGO communities have returned to New York to find a debate already waiting in the wings. During this year’s General Assembly, it is expected that Palestine will lobby for UN member-state status, a topic that raises varied opinions across the globe.

As the intern for the Loretto Community at the UN, I had the opportunity to attend a forum on Monday September 12th on this very issue, entitled “Palestine: The UN Debate and Beyond”. The forum included a short lecture by two prominent professors in the field of Middle East Politics and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and the Director of the Middle East Institute of Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs. The second panelist, Karima Bennoune, is a Professor of Law and the Arthur L. Dickson Scholar at Rutgers School of Law in Newark. While the two scholars referenced various aspects of this conflict and of the upcoming initiative, here are a couple key points that seem to be the central message emphasized by both speakers regarding a Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN level.

First, the speakers noted that reemergence of diplomatic negotiations at the UN surrounding the status of Palestine can be seen as a shift towards a multilateral arena of debate for the issue. Professor Khalidi explained that while UN was once the place where the debate surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict took place, much of that energy was shifted away from the UN forum and towards peace negotiations orchestrated by the United States. Both speakers recognized that bringing this issue back to the UN could be an important opportunity for multilateral decision making to take place, given their opinions that the US/Israel/Palestine peace talks were heavily framed and controlled by the US.

While the UN may be agreed upon as a proper space for this issue to be debated, both speakers expressed skepticism that UN recognition for Palestine would be as positive a step as many have hoped. Khalidi stated that from his perspective, the victory would be more symbolic, as former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat already declared Palestine a state in 1988 and over 120 countries have also already recognized its status as a state. What’s more, the speakers emphasized that recognition at the UN would not change the circumstances for Palestinians on the ground. Instead, UN recognition of statehood and membership may offer the illusion that the situation has normalized, when in fact for Palestinians it has not. Professor Bennoune claimed that the UN resolution is not a solution in itself, and that it could be a devastating blow to the daily situation of the Palestinians if the passing of this initiative symbolized to the international community an end to the conflict. According to Kahlidi, Palestine may have territory like a state and may appear to be a state, but it does not hold the rights of a sovereign state when there are external restrictions on movement placed on the Palestinian people and when Israelis have built settlements on designated Palestinian land.

Another issue that the speakers discussed is the possible veto of the upcoming resolution by the United States. Within the UN Security Council, where the resolution for Palestinian membership would arrive first, the United States holds the power to veto the resolution outright and according to many scholars and news media, is expected to do so. At the forum, Professor Bennoune expressed her deep concern about the possibility of a US veto. For decades the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been dominated by violent attacks and war. Now, when the Palestinian government has decided to seek nonviolent and diplomatic means of negotiation through the UN, the United States is committing itself to vetoing the proposed initiative and even attempting to stop the Palestinians from even bringing the initiative to the floor. “What is the alternative, if they cannot use peaceful means?” asked Bennoune. As an international law specialist, she also shared her disappointment at how historically the Security Council veto has been used by the five countries that permanently hold that power. One example she gave was of China vetoing UN resolutions that would place sanctions on Sudan as a result of the violence and massacres taking place in the country. Bennoune is not the only one to find fault with the Security Council veto power. Many other diplomats and actors at the UN have criticized this tool as a means for the five countries (France, China, Russia, the United States, and the UK) to serve their own interests while disregarding the protection of basic human rights, and have urged for UN reform regarding this policy and others.

One possible consequence for the United States if it decides to veto the resolution would be international outrage and the possibility of shifting relationships with allies. For example, according to former Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, in his Op-Ed “Veto a State, Lose an Ally” in the New York Times on September 12th 2011, if the United States vetoed the resolution for recognition of the Palestinian state, “Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with America in the same way it historically has”. The US may also receive backlash from other members of the 124 countries that have also already recognized Palestine.