Palestinians seek UN upgrade but powers elusive

November 30, 2012 - 12:34 AM
Mideast Israel Palestinians

Palestinians hold pictures of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper superimposed with a face of a dog during a protest following his remarks about the Palestinian UN bid for an observer state status, in front of Canadian representative offices in the West bank city of Ramallah, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. Harper has threatened "there will be consequences" if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas does not end his campaign for the Palestinian Authority to be recognized by the UN as a non-member observer state. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Although Palestinians achieved their goal of being upgraded to nonmember observer state status at the United Nations on Thursday, they still face a series of struggles to capitalize on that recognition throughout the U.N. system.

The Palestinian Authority, by a General Assembly vote of 138-9 with 41 abstentions, joined the Vatican Thursday as the only other entity with nonmember observer state status. In practice, the Palestinians gain few new powers.

Much of what unfolds will depend on how hard the Palestinians want to pursue membership in various U.N. agencies, and who will support them. Here's a look at how the Palestinians' role could change at the U.N.:

— The upgraded Palestinian Authority still can't introduce resolutions to the General Assembly. Like the Vatican, the Palestinians will have to find a sympathetic nation-state or bloc of nations in the Assembly to introduce any resolution.

Last year, the Palestinians tried and failed to get full U.N. member-state status. The Security Council must approve new members, and the United States made clear it would veto any Palestinian attempt. So the doomed full membership bid was never brought forward for a full council vote.

— The International Court of Justice, often called the "World Court," accepts only disputes between fully recognized member-states of the U.N. In the past, countries that were not yet U.N. members — Switzerland and Nauru — accepted the jurisdiction of the court. However, parties to any dispute must be willing to accept the court's judgment, and it is hard to imagine any case in which both Israel and the Palestinians would agree to be bound by the court's decision.

— The International Criminal Court at the Hague can review war crimes, and Israel has objected to the possibility of the Palestinians bringing cases to the ICC. But to do so, the Palestinians would have to file papers of "accession" under the Rome Treaty that set up the ICC. That membership option is open to "all states."

In practice, the application to become a "state" member of the ICC system would go to the office of the U.N. Secretary-General, which is the official repository for signatures. The U.N. chief's office would, in that case, have to turn to the U.N. legal department for an opinion on whether the Palestinians constitute a "state." Thursday's General Assembly vote would weigh in the Palestinians' favor, but other factors such as control of territory would also be weighed.

The Palestinian Authority tried to have alleged Israeli crimes in the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict investigated, but prosecutors in April refused to open an investigation, saying it was not clear if the Palestinians qualified as a state and that only states can recognize the court's jurisdiction.

— Among the U.N.'s array of other organizations, membership is largely dependent on agreement of the members of the body. Omar Awadalla, who oversees U.N. affairs at the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, said experts are already hard at work assessing which U.N. bodies they will be eligible to join. In general, the Palestinians would be able to successfully lobby for membership in any body or agency that mirrors the General Assembly in membership.

        Officials believe that even as a nonmember state, the Palestinians could join influential international bodies such as the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the World Bank and the International Criminal Court.

While membership in some of these bodies would be largely symbolic, other agencies could provide a useful platform for the Palestinians. UNESCO admitted the Palestinian Authority to membership in 2011, and infuriated Israel by defining West Bank holy sites sacred to both Jews and Muslims as "Palestinian."