Palestine Granted Non-member Observer State Statues, What does it say about the UN?

A year on from when President Mahmoud Abbas of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) made a formal submission to the United Nations for Palestine’s statehood, the General Assembly has granted it Non-Member Observer State Status. The last bid for statehood by the Palestinians, to a great extent, can be seen as a power play; calling all players at the table to show where they stood on the issue. That was, however, the Security Council’s vote, and this was not. 138 nations voted in favour of the motion, with 9 against and 41 abstaining including the UK.

The Palestinians achieving recognition as a state will undoubtedly change the dialogue of the Western media who have always maintained a careful discourse classing them as a ‘people’ in official channels. More importantly, what does this mean for the peace process? The answer: very little. It was not a plan A, nor really a plan B, of President Abbas to seek statehood over peace talks with Israel, yet intransigence on the key issues means that other diplomatic channels are favourable to the Palestinians. Critics suggesting that this move somehow jeopardised the peace process are yet to produce a convincing argument, let alone any evidence that peace talks could yield tangible results.
The core issue to Palestine is settlement construction in the West Bank. In the wake of a successful gambit at the UN, Israel has fast tracked 1000 pre-existing applications and has given the green light to a further 3000 for building projects in East Jerusalem and the West Bank (Known as the E1 area). This has drawn significant diplomatic fire from both the UK and France as the wider implications of Palestine’s new status settle in.
The new status within the UN gives the PLO several options which, if used, could mean significant international condemnation for Israel and the possibility that settlement construction be officially deemed illegal. This is because the new status in the UN would allow Palestine to challenge Israel in the International Criminal Court, and draw support from other bodies within the UN structure. It remains unclear when this route would be pursued, and perhaps the Israeli move to build new settlements is an attempt to bait the Palestinians to use their trump card early.
What is clear from last week’s events at the UN is the overwhelming legitimacy given to the Palestinians by the General Assembly. The diplomatic fallout is yet to become truly apparent, although it is clear that the decision is not sitting comfortably with the Israelis and tensions within the UN are likely to increase.
The vote on Palestine’s status last week demonstrated that, while an overwhelming majority of countries were in favour of the original motion in September 2011, there is an enormous power gulf in the structure of the UN. It seems that while the vote on Palestine could be seen as hopeful, it can also be considered disturbing that 138 nations potentially supported full statehood and it took only one to deny them it officially.
The power structure reflects the hierarchy of states in 1945, when the United Nations was established, but does little to reflect the balance of power in the world today. There is a plurality of voices suggesting reform of the UN, and have been for some time, which is highlighted by Kofi Annan’s 2005 report ‘In larger freedom’. The UN remains a toothless organisation to ‘peace keep’ while lengthy diplomatic battles are fought in the Security Council and few troops are provided for such missions by the five permanent members. Without a more democratic structure, one representing the commitment of nations both in peacekeeping and budgetary contribution, the UN will continue to be more symbolic than anything else.

By Sam Wood