Palestine has unique status at the United Nations. It is not a full-fledged member state. Rather, it is what is known as a “non-member observer state.” It has a permanent office at the UN that is akin to an embassy and it can participate in any meeting of the General Assembly — but it can’t vote.  The only other entity with this status is The Holy See.

Despite the fact that it is not a full-fledged member of the United Nations, a key group of UN member states has selected Palestine as its chair. This group is known formally as the “G-77.” It is a coalition of 132 countries of the developing world, including China.  Often times during negotiations at the United Nations, the G77 will form a bloc to advance the common interests of the developing world. And because of the sheer size of the G77 — it represents nearly two thirds of the UN membership, and about 80% of the world’s population — it is a powerful force at the General Assembly. The G77 negotiated amongst itself to select Palestine as its chair for the year, starting this January.

The G77 is most powerful in debates over the budget and management issues at the UN.

This is because these issues are decided in the General Assembly (as opposed to peace and security issues, which are the remit of the Security Council). And it is in these debates that the G77 often finds itself at logger heads with wealthier countries, including the United States and European powers.  No matter the US administration, there is often a degree of friction between the G77 and the United States in budgetary debates —  but they usually find some compromise and are able to pass resolutions by consensus.

That is how it typically works. But there is a very real possibility that this move may heighten tensions between the United States and the G77.

In her 18 months as UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley has demonstrated a hostility towards Palestinians at the UN. She blocked a respected diplomat from serving as a UN mediator in Libya simply for the fact that this diplomat was Palestinian. She’s also responsible for the US decision to withhold funding from the UN humanitarian agency that supports Palestinian refugees, which she justified as retribution for a vote at the UN General Assembly condemning the Trump administration’s decision to move the US capitol to Jerusalem.

There does not seem to be much love lost between her and the Palestinian representative to the UN, Riyad Mansour, who just yesterday called Haley “arrogant.”

This could be problematic for the basic functioning of the General Assembly. The US is the single most important member state at the United Nations and the G77 is the single largest voting bloc. Unless Mansour and Haley establish a modus vivendi the typical give-and-take that accompanies decision making at the General Assembly may fall apart. This could be extremely disruptive, as most decisions taken by the General Assembly are done by consensus.

On the other hand, as chair of the G77 Mansour would be expected to represent the common agenda of the G77, not the parochial interests of Palestine.  And for her part, Haley –a skilled politician — could find a way to work with Mansour as head of the G-77 if she wanted. Tensions need not be heightened, and the important work of the General Assembly could continue without a hiccup. It all depends on how these diplomats approach this situation in the coming year.

 

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