The Palestinian UN bid: what happened and what changed

The UN General Assembly has voted to upgrade the Palestinians' status from a non-member observer entity to a non-member observer state, a move that puts them on par with the Holy See. So what has changed?
Members of the Palestinian delegation react as they surround Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, centre, during a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Nov. 29, 2012. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

The Palestinian Authority's status at the United Nations has been upgraded to state recognition.

In a largely symbolic move, the UN General Assembly voted on Nov. 29 to change the Palestinians' status from a non-member observer entity to a non-member observer state, a move that puts them on par with the Holy See.

How does this bid differ from the previous Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations?

On Sept. 23, 2011, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas presented an application to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon formally asking the world body to consider granting the Palestinians full membership status. The request was blocked by the Security Council, where it was opposed by the United States.

The more recent resolution passed, mainly because it occurred in the General Assembly, where no country has veto power. The final tally was 138 countries in favour and nine opposed, with 41 abstentions.

What does the successful bid allow the Palestinians to do?

Many observers believe the new status will allow the Palestinians to apply to join UN agencies and sign treaties, including the Rome Statue, which created the International Criminal Court.

Much of what happens will depend on how hard the Palestinians want to pursue membership in the agencies, and who will support them.

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 UN secretary general. The UN chief's office would, in that case, have to turn to the UN legal department for an opinion on whether the Palestinians constitute a "state." The Nov. 29 General Assembly vote would weigh in the Palestinians' favour, but other factors such as control of territory would also be considered.

The Palestinians' new status, however, won't mean that the Palestinian flag will fly outside UN headquarters in New York.

"Just because the Palestinians can now join the World Health Organization doesn't solve the Middle East crisis," a senior Western diplomat said before the vote.

What were the Palestinians able do at the UN before the vote?

The Palestinians could speak in the General Assembly, but not vote.

In 1974, the General Assembly approved observer status for the Palestine Liberation Organization.

There are no provisions for observer status in the UN charter, so the status "is based purely on practice," according to the UN. The PLO may participate as an observer in General Assembly sessions and the work of the Assembly, and is given office space as a "Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations."

What is Canada's position?

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird speaks at the United Nations in New York on Nov. 29, 2012. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

Canada voted against the bid to upgrade the Palestinians' status to state recognition at the UN.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was in New York to oppose the move and spoke to the General Assembly.

"We cannot support an initiative that we are firmly convinced will undermine the objective of reaching a comprehensive, lasting and just settlement for both sides. It is for these reasons that Canada is voting against this resolution," said Baird. "We will be considering all available next steps."

One day after the vote, Canada temporarily recalled its heads of mission to Israel and the West Bank, along with its UN representatives in New York and Geneva, to protest the successful bid by the Palestinians.

What positions did other countries take?

In addition to Canada, eight countries — Czech Republic, Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Panama and the United States — voted against the bid.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted shortly after the vote: "Today's unfortunate & counterproductive resolution places further obstacles in the path to peace."

In her explanation of her country's position, Rice said, "Long after the votes have been cast, long after the speeches have been forgotten, it is the Palestinians and the Israelis who must still talk to each other and listen to each other and find a way to live side by side in the land they share."

In the vote, 138 countries, including France, China, Spain, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland, supported the move.

"In any case, it's only through negotiations — that we ask for without conditions and immediately between the two sides — that we will be able to reach the realization of a Palestinian state," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said prior to the vote.

Forty-one countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom, abstained from the vote.

Before the vote, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain could support the measure only if there were a clear commitment by the Palestinians to return immediately and unconditionally to negotiations with Israel.

"While there is no question of the United Kingdom voting against the resolution, in order to vote for it we would need certain assurances or amendments," said Hague.

With files from CBC's Melissa Kent in New York and The Associated Press