Unmet Potential: The UN Committee on Palestine

Al-Shabaka Policy Brief


Faced with the glaring failure of the Washington-brokered “peace process” to secure Palestinian human rights, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has belatedly rediscovered the United Nations. But the PLO continues to overlook – not to say subvert – the potential of the Committee established by the General Assembly on the rights of the Palestinian people. Al-Shabaka Policy Advisor Noura Erakat examines this potential and compares it to the key role played by similar General Assembly committees in Namibia’s independence and against apartheid in South Africa. Erakat discusses the way in which the Committee shunned civil society participation in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords as well as the impact of internal Palestinian divisions on the Committee’s effectiveness. She concludes with recommendations for the different actors involved.1

Hobbled at the Start

In 1975 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly passed resolution 3376 establishing the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (“the Committee”) due to the lack of progress in fulfilling self-determination and the right to return to their homes and properties, among others.2

Within a year, the Committee submitted a proposal of implementation to the UN Security Council that included a two-phase plan to return and restitute Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948 and 1967; a timetable for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT); the presence of a temporary peacekeeping force to protect Palestinian civilians; the temporary stewardship of the OPT by the UN and the Arab League before handing them over to the PLO; the cessation of all Israeli settlement activity; the recognition by Israel of the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention; and creating all means necessary to establish self-determination and independence of the Palestinian people.3 The United States vetoed the resolution. In response, the UNGA institutionalized the role of the Committee by establishing the UN Division for Palestinian Rights within the UN Secretariat in 1977 to provide substantive support.4

The question of Palestine was not unique for its specialized focus within the UN. The UN General Assembly had previously established other committees aimed at garnering international support to end foreign colonization. The two most prominent were the Special Committee on Apartheid, established in 1962 to end Apartheid in South Africa (Res. 1761), and the UN Council for Namibia, established in 1967 to be the legal Administering Authority of Namibia until independence (Res. 2248). Both Committees have long been dissolved, having achieved their mandate. By contrast, the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, now in its thirty-fifth year, continues to function but has not effectively mobilized the General Assembly to challenge the intransigent UN (read American) opposition to resolving the conflict in line with international law.

In fact, in its initial recommendations to the Security Council in 1976, the Committee wrote:

If the Security Council was unable to act because of a veto, the Committee should, in its subsequent report, recommend to the General Assembly that it carry out its own responsibilities in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and in the light of precedents. It was also suggested that if Israel persisted in its refusal to implement General Assembly resolutions 194 (III) and 181 (II), this would constitute a violation of the conditions of its admission to the United Nations, which would then have to reconsider the matter.

However, far from raising controversial issues such as the legitimacy of Israel’s inclusion in the UN given its failure to meet its conditional terms of acceptance, the Committee has been notably conservative in fulfilling its mandate. In effect, its function has become more ceremonial than political. According to Joseph Schechla, Coordinator for the Housing and Land Rights Network, Habitat International Coalition, who attended the Committee’s meetings, “The Committee does not operate as a political body within the General Assembly. Their structure, in a way, is insignificant and of the member states none are particularly influential. There is no desire for this group to be effective.”5