Later this month, the Palestinians will ask the UN General Assembly to upgrade their status at the United Nations to become a non-member observer state. This would put them on the same membership level as the Vatican. It would not change very much about how the UN operates.
The United States and Israel have voiced opposition to this move, but the General Assembly resolution will probably still pass with overwhelming support. Within the UN proper, this is more symbolic than anything else. The Palestinians already have a somewhat privileged status as a non-member. They can address the General Assembly, participate in meetings, and co-sponsor resolutions. They just are not able to vote, or become voting members of any UN committee. None of this will change with their upgraded status.
There’s one important thing to note, and which this New York Times story gets wrong: US funding to the United Nations would not be automatically suspended when Palestine upgrades its status to non-member observer. Legislation from the 1990s stipulates that US funding for the UN or its entities is automatically suspended when that entity grants Palestine membership. It says nothing about observer status.
What may change is how the members of other UN agencies, like the IAEA, the Word Health Organization and others approach Palestinian membership. Membership to these organizations is decided by the members of those organizations. So, for example, the World Health Organization has the World Health Assembly as its governing body. If the WHA decides to grant Palestine membership to the WHO, then US funding to the World Health Organization would be automatically suspended. This happened to UNESCO last year. (It’s probably worth mentioning how horribly this legislation undermines American interests and leadership. The idea that we would cut off American support for Malaria or Polio control because Palestine joins the WHO is insane.)
Finally, there’s been much attention to the idea that upgraded UN status may permit the International Criminal Court to open a case for crimes committed in Gaza. This is very, very unclear. Last April, the ICC prosecutor refused to entertain a Palestinian request to open an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity committed in Gaza in 2008. So long as Palestine is not considered a state by the UN, he said his office has no jurisdiction over Gaza. It is not clear at all if Palestine’s upgraded status resolves this jurisdiction question one way or the other. An added wrinkle is that there is a new prosecutor now, and she may have her own interpretation of Palestine’s status. Also, the judges of the court may issue a different jurisdictional decision. There are way too many unknowns to deduce whether or not Palestine may be able to revisit its claims against Israel at the ICC.
All these will be issues to watch in the next month as Palestine’s quest for upgraded status is fulfilled.