The 193 members of the United Nations General Assembly are expected to vote on the Israel-Gaza war on Friday, but as an observer rather than a member, Palestine will not have a say.
Jordan, acting on behalf of Arab countries, has proposed a General Assembly resolution calling, among other things, for a humanitarian ceasefire after the smaller more powerful UN Security Council failed to take action,despite the rising death toll from Israel’s continued bombardments.
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“I appeal to all of you to vote to stop the killing. Vote for humanitarian aid to reach those whose very survival depends on it. Vote to stop this madness,” Palestine’s UN ambassador Riyad Mansour said in an emotional speech to the UN General Assembly on Thursday.
The Palestinian foreign minister also addressed the UN Security Council at a special session this week, but as a non-member observer state, Palestine is not able to participate in the same way as full UN member states.
As UN members continue to discuss how they will respond to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, here is a quick guide to Palestine’s status at the UN.
In 2012, the majority of the 193 members of the General Assembly voted to grant Palestine non-member observer status.
A total of 138 of the UN General Assembly’s 193 members voted yes, while nine voted no and 46 abstained or did not vote.
Among the countries that voted no were the United States, Israel and Canada as well as Pacific Island nations including Nauru and Palau.
Non-member state observer status is not officially recognised in the UN Charter but has a long history. It was first held by Switzerland and is currently held only by Palestine and the Holy See, also known as the Vatican.
The decision to grant Palestine non-member status was far from the first, or last time, the General Assembly has voted on Palestine.
In 1947, the then-members of the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution titled the future government of Palestine.
The resolution decided that Palestine would be “[partitioned into two states” with the creation of “Independent Arab and Jewish States” as well as a “Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem”.
The resolution passed with 33 of the then-57 members of the UN General Assembly voting yes.
The number of members of the UN at the time was significantly smaller than it is today, as dozens of present member states had yet to gain independence from European colonial powers.
Two years later, in 1949, the State of Israel was admitted to the UN as its 59th member.
Who represents Palestine?
On Tuesday this week, Palestine’s Foreign Minister Riad Malki addressed the UN Security Council open debate.
Malki is part of the Palestinian Authority, which is led by a different political grouping to Hamas, which controls Gaza.
The Palestinian Authority continues to represent Palestinians at the UN although at home its authority to govern on behalf of all Palestinians is complicated.
Could Palestine become a full UN member?
In 2019, the UN General Assembly voted to allow Palestine to temporarily exercise limited additional powers while it chaired the Group of 77, a grouping at the UN which originally had 77 members, but now has more than 130.
One of the countries that opposed the temporary measure was Australia.
Gillian Bird, Australia’s ambassador to the UN at the time told the General Assembly that Australia voted no because it saw “Palestinian attempts to seek recognition as a state in international fora [as] deeply unhelpful to efforts toward a two-state solution.”
While the General Assembly casts votes on new proposed members, it is the Security Council which decides which candidates are considered.
The council has 15 members, but the five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the US – have the power of veto. The US has used it some 34 times to block resolutions critical of Israel.
Who gets to vote?
“When the Security Council is unable to act, the General Assembly must step up,” Dennis Francis, the president of the General Assembly, said when he called a special meeting of the General Assembly this week at the request of Jordan, Mauritius and several other countries.
NEW: Arab Group circulates amended #UNGA draft resolution to #UN member states which replaces call for "immediate ceasefire" in #Gaza/#Israel with a call for "an immediate, durable & sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities."
— Rami Ayari (@Raminho) October 26, 2023
Unlike the Security Council, which has only 15 members, the UN General Assembly includes all 193 of the UN’s member states.
Votes in the UN General Assembly are also less complicated than in the Security Council, where resolutions have often been blocked by the permanent veto. China, Russia and the United States have all used their veto to block Security Council resolutions on Israel-Gaza in the last two weeks.
But while UN General Assembly members do sometimes take a different approach to Palestine than the UN Security Council, UN General Assembly resolutions are considered less legally binding than Security Council resolutions, especially when it comes to the currently much-contested calls for ceasefires.
As both UN bodies continue to consider their carefully worded resolutions, Mansour reminded UN members to “remember we are meeting here while Palestinians in Gaza are under the bombs”.