United Nations General Assembly observers
In addition to its 193 member states, the United Nations General Assembly may grant observer status to an international organization, entity or non-member state, which entitles the entity to participate in the work of the United Nations General Assembly, though with limitations. The General Assembly may determine what privileges it grants with the observer status, such as a right to speak at General Assembly meetings, vote on procedural matters, serve as signatories on working papers, and sign resolutions,[clarification needed] but not to sponsor resolutions or vote on resolutions of substantive matters. Exceptionally, the EU was granted in 2011 the right to speak in debates, to submit proposals and amendments, the right of reply, to raise points of order and to circulate documents, etc. As of May 2011, the EU was the only international organisation to hold these enhanced rights, which has been likened to the rights of full membership, short of the right to vote.
Observer status may be granted by a United Nations General Assembly resolution. The status of a permanent observer is based purely on practice of the General Assembly, and there are no provisions for it in the United Nations Charter. A distinction has been made between state and non-state observers. Non-member states, which are members of one or more specialized agencies, can apply for the status of permanent observer state. Non-state observers are the international organizations and other entities.
United Nations member state qualifications
Membership in the United Nations is open to all other peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgement of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations.
Non-member observer states
The General Assembly may invite non-member entities to participate in the work of the United Nations without formal membership, and has done so on numerous occasions. Such participants are described as observers, some of which may be further classified as non-member state observers. Most former non-member observer states accepted observer status at a time when they had applied for membership but were unable to attain it, due to the (actual or threatened) veto by one or more of the permanent members of the Security Council. The grant of observer status is made by the General Assembly only, and not subject to a Security Council veto.
In some circumstances a state may elect to become an observer rather than full member. For example, to preserve its neutrality while participating in its work, Switzerland chose to remain a permanent non-member state observer from 1948 until it became a member in 2002. The Holy See did not wish to join the United Nations as a member because “Membership in the organization would not seem to be consonant with the provisions of Article 24 of the Lateran Treaty, particularly as regards spiritual status and participation in possible use of force.” Since April 6, 1964, the Holy See has accepted permanent observer state status at the United Nations, which was regarded as a diplomatic courtesy, to enable the Vatican to participate in the UN’s humanitarian activities and in the promotion of peace.
Present non-member observer states
As of 2019, there are two permanent non-member observer states in the United Nations: the Holy See and Palestine. The Holy See uncontroversially obtained its non-member observer state status in 1964 and Palestine was so designated in 2012, following an application for full membership in 2011 which has not yet been put to a UN Security Council vote largely due to the U.S. pressure. Both the Holy See and the State of Palestine are described as “Non-member States having received a standing invitation to participate as observers in the sessions and the work of the General Assembly and maintaining permanent observer missions at Headquarters”.
The change of Palestinian observer status in 2012 from “non-member observer entity” to “non-member observer state” was regarded as an “upgrade” of their status. Many called the change “symbolic”, but which was regarded as providing new leverage to the Palestinians in their dealings with Israel. As a result, in the change in status, the United Nations Secretariat recognized Palestine’s right to become a party to treaties for which the UN Secretary-General is the depositary.
The seating in the General Assembly Hall is arranged with non-member observer states being seated immediately after UN member states, and before other observers. On 10 September 2015, the General Assembly resolved to approve the raising at the UN of the flags of non-member observer states alongside those of the 193 UN member states.
|Non-member state||Date observer status was granted||Additional timeline and details|
|Holy See||6 April 1964: granted permanent observer state status
1 July 2004: gained all the rights of full membership except voting rights, submission of resolution proposals without co-sponsoring, and putting forward candidates (A/RES/58/314)
|Sovereign entity with statehood over the territory of the Vatican City State.|
|State of Palestine||22 November 1974: non-state observer status for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) (A/RES/3237 (XXIX))
9 December 1988: right to circulate communications without intermediary (A/RES/43/160)
15 December 1988: designation “Palestine” (A/RES/43/177)
7 July 1998: right to participate in general debate and additional rights (A/RES/52/250)
29 November 2012: non-member observer state status (A/RES/67/19):
|28 October 1974: PLO recognized as “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people“, by states of the seventh Arab summit (and later by over 100 states with which it holds diplomatic relations and by Israel).
22 November 1974: PLO recognized as competent on all matters concerning the question of Palestine by the UN General Assembly in addition to the right of the Palestinian people in Palestine to national independence and sovereignty.
15 November 1988: PLO unilaterally declared the State of Palestine.
4 May 1994: PLO established the Palestinian National Authority territorial administration as result of the Oslo Accords signed by the PLO itself, Israel, United States and Russia.
7 July 1998: PLO has been assigned seating in the General Assembly Hall immediately after non-member States and before the other observers.
23 September 2011: State of Palestine applies for UN membership
17 December 2012: UN Chief of Protocol Yeocheol Yoon decides that “the designation of ‘State of Palestine’ shall be used by the Secretariat in all official United Nations documents.”
- The Cook Islands and Niue, both states in free association with New Zealand, are members of several UN specialized agencies, and have had their “full treaty-making capacity” recognized by United Nations Secretariat in 1992 and 1994 respectively. The Cook Islands has expressed a desire to become a UN member state, but New Zealand has said that they would not support the application without a change in their constitutional relationship, in particular the right of Cook Islanders to New Zealand citizenship.
- The Republic of China, commonly known as Taiwan, was a founding member of the United Nations representing China, which had been divided between the ROC and the People’s Republic of China since the Chinese Civil War. However, in 1971 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758 transferred China’s seat in the UN from the ROC to the PRC. Since then, Taiwan has sought to resume its participation in UN activities. Various methods were considered, including seeking observer status, but ultimately the ROC chose to submit more vague requests which did not specify the form of participation it sought between 1993-2006. These requests have been consistently denied due to the UN’s recognition of the PRC as the “legitimate representative of China to the United Nations”. The UN Secretary-General concluded from the resolution that the General Assembly considered Taiwan to be a province of China, and thus it does not permit the ROC to become a party to treaties for which it is the depositary.
- Other countries are recognized by the United Nations as not being self-governing and appear on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, but are represented in the UN by their respective administering member state.
Former non-member observer states
Sixteen former non-member states were also granted observer status. Fourteen of those states eventually became members of the United Nations. The other two constitute a single special case.[Note 1]
Most of the former non-member observer states accepted this status at a time when they had applied for membership but were unable to attain it, due to the (actual or threatened) veto of one or more of the permanent members of the Security Council. The vetoes were later overcome either by changes in geopolitical circumstances, or by “package deals” under which the Security Council approved multiple new member states at the same time, as was done with a dozen countries in 1955 and with East and West Germany in 1973.
|State||Granted||Became full member||Period|
|North Korea||1973||1991||18 years|
|Democratic Republic of Viet Nam||1975||[Note 1]—||1 year|
|Federal Republic of Germany||1952||1973||21 years|
|German Democratic Republic||1972||1973||1 year|
|South Korea||1949||1991||42 years|
|Republic of Vietnam||1952||[Note 1]—||24 years|
|Vietnam||1976 [Note 1]||1977||1 year|
- On 30 April 1975 South Vietnam was taken over by communist forces and on 2 July 1976 it united with North Vietnam to form modern Vietnam, which was granted observer status in 1976. The UN General Assembly resolutions and decisions for the 30th and 31st sessions do not record the decision to grant observer status, but Resolution 31/21 of 26 November 1976 does refer to the “Permanent Observer of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam to the United Nations”. Viet Nam became a member of the UN on 20 September 1977.
Entities and international organizations
Many intergovernmental organizations and a few other entities (non-governmental organizations and others with various degrees of statehood or sovereignty), are invited to become observers at the General Assembly. Some of them maintain a permanent office in the United Nations headquarters in New York City, while others do not; however, this is the choice of the organization and does not imply differences in their status.
Regional organizations allowed by their member states to speak on their behalf
In the resolution adopted in May 2011 granting additional rights to the European Union the UNGA decided that similar arrangements may be adopted for any other regional organization that is allowed to speak on behalf of its member states.
|Organization or entity||Date observer status was granted||Entity type|
|European Union[note 1]||11 October 1974 (A/RES/3208 (XXIX)): observer status
10 May 2011 (A/RES/65/276): additional rights
|The only observer that operates through a hybrid system of intergovernmentalism and supranationalism, giving it some state-like qualities.|
|Organization or entity||Date observer status was granted|
|International Chamber of Commerce||21 Dec 2016 (A/RES/71/156)|
|International Committee of the Red Cross||16 Oct 1990 (A/RES/45/6)|
|International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies||19 Oct 1994 (A/RES/49/2)|
|Inter-Parliamentary Union||19 Nov 2002 (A/RES/57/32)|
|International Olympic Committee||20 Oct 2009 (A/RES/64/3)|
|Sovereign Military Order of Malta||24 Aug 1994 (A/RES/48/265)|
Former observer entities
- The South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), a liberation movement in Namibia, held observer status with the right to circulate communications without intermediary beginning in 1976. This terminated in 1990 when the Republic of Namibia attained independence and was granted full membership in the United Nations and SWAPO was transformed into a political party.
While the EU is an observer, it is party to some 50 international UN agreements as the only non-state participant. It is a full participant on the Commission on Sustainable Development, the Forum on Forests and the Food and Agriculture Organization. It has also been a full participant at certain UN summits, such as the Rio and Kyoto summits on climate change, including hosting a summit. Furthermore, the EU delegation maintains close relations with the UN’s aid bodies. In 2011 the EU was granted enhanced powers in the General Assembly; the right to speak in debates, to submit proposals and amendments, the right of reply, to raise points of order and to circulate documents. These rights were also made open to other international organizations who requested them, if their members have given them the right to speak on their behalf.
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