There is word from a weekend meeting of the PLO that the Palestinian authority is readying plans to move forward with a push to join various United Nations bodies. The Palestinians had pledged to hold out on this move pending ongoing peace talks with Israel. But with those talks all but dead, it would appear that this is their logical next step in the quest for international recognition.
This will have far reaching consequence for the international system.
What does this mean for the Palestinians?
Each UN body (or “specialized agency” as they are known in UN-parlance) has its own criteria for membership. Generally speaking, these agencies have governing boards made up of their members — sort of like mini-General Assemblies. It is all but assured that Palestine would earn enough votes to join any organization it desires; a lopsided vote in favor of Palestine’s membership to UNESCO in 2011 shows that the Palestinians have the requisite support from UN member states.
Being a member of these organizations usually requires paying dues based on the country’s relative economic strength. Members also get to vote and serve on executive bodies. That said, most of the big questions proceed by consensus, meaning that every member state generally agrees on the same proposition. In theory, that means one member state can gum up the works. In practice, the only member states that block consensus are the wealthier, more powerful ones. (If, say Equatorial Guinea objects to something, the body will take note of that objection and move on. If the USA objects to something, the body will work with the USA to find an acceptable compromise.)
Still, Palestinian membership to entities like the IAEA, WHO, World Intellectual Property Organization, and other bodies offer the trappings of sovereignty and political independence. Membership provides the sort of diplomatic-facts-on-the-ground that make full independence from Israel seem inevitable.
What does this means for the Americans?
For the USA, this move by the Palestinians is problematic on two accounts. First, unless the USA changes its policies, it is poised to lose a series of bruising votes at various United Nations entities.
This is how UNESCO’s governing body voted on admitting Palestine as a member three years ago. The vote was not even close. And more importantly, western countries were pretty much split, meaning the USA could not convince its closest allies in Europe to block Palestine.
Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Palau, Panama, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Sweden, US, Vanuatu.
Albania, Andorra, Bahamas, Barbados, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Colombia, Cook Islands, Ivory Coast, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Fiji, Georgia, Haiti, Hungary, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Kiribati, Latvia, Liberia, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Poland, Portugal, South Korea, Moldova, Romania, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Switzerland, Thailand, Macedonia, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, Ukraine, UK, Zambia.
Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Chad, Chile, China, Congo, Costa Rica, Cuba, Cyprus, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Finland, France, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Greece, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea, Honduras, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Lebanon, Lesotho, Libya, Luxembourg, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Qatar, Russian Federation, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Slovenia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Tanzania, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen, Zimbabwe.
There is no reason to think that a vote of, say, the World Health Assembly to admit Palestine to the WHO will turn out any differently. In each of these votes, the USA will show itself to be increasingly isolated from the international consensus on the status of Palestine.
Second, existing US law prohibits the United States from paying membership dues to any UN body that admits Palestine as a member. Once Palestine joins the IAEA, for example, the USA will suspend its payments to the nuclear watchdog. Generally, after a period of non-payment of dues, a country loses its vote at the organization. So, not only will the USA not be able to pay for nuclear inspections, but the USA will also lose its ability to determine where those inspectors should be deployed.
This is precisely what happened at UNESCO. Member states admitted Palestine. The USA cut off its funding and two years later, the USA lost its vote at UNESCO.
What does this mean for the United Nations?
The fact of Palestine’s membership to various UN bodies should not affect the work of those bodies in any discernable way. However, the loss of US funding and influence over these organization would be catastrophic to their day-to-day operations. The USA is the single largest funder of most UN bodies, generally funding about 30% of operating costs. These agencies would suddenly be forced to drastically scale back programs. For some agencies, (like the WHO) this can have life-or-death consequences. Other agencies, say the International Civil Aviation Organization, WIPO, or the Universal Postal Union will not be able to fully carry out their mandates, undermining global commerce.
If the USA does not rescind its laws restricting funding to UN bodies that admit Palestine as members the international system is poised to be upended. The things that we take for granted today — common airline safety protocols, knowing how many stamps to put on a letter to another country, dispatching nuclear inspectors to Iran, stopping ebola’s spread — will be much, much more difficult.