The UN General Assembly's vote on Jerusalem, Put Simply

By campaign agent Marykate Monaghan

On the 21st December, a resolution passed during an emergency special session held by the UN General Assembly symbolically condemned the US’ decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Yet, the intimidating rhetoric used by both President Donald Trump and US Ambassador Nikki Haley before the vote highlights a shift in the US’ diplomatic approach towards coercion. This blog post will outline the content of the resolution drafted by the UN and the influence the US’ new diplomatic approach may have on the maintenance of state relations and their future role within the international community.

What does the resolution focus on? 

The resolution was drafted as a response to President Donald Trump’s decision to officially recognise the City of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as it threatened to escalate the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. The resolution made clear that the decision would be viewed as “null and void” by the United Nations, emphasising that any moves to alter the character and political status of the Holy City of Jerusalem would have no legal effect. Likewise, it re-enforced the previous resolution established by the Security Council in 1980, which aimed to ensure states abstained from enacting any diplomatic missions within the city. This, the US defied in deciding to move the official US embassy to Jerusalem. Thus, if states voted in favour of the resolution, it would equate to an open condemnation of the US' decision, and a demand that the decision to not alter the status of Jerusalem would be upheld. Likewise, it would set an example for other states to refrain from copying the US, ensuring their official embassies would remain in Tel Aviv instead. 

What were the results and consequences of the vote? 

The result of the vote was as follows:

- 128 states voted in favour.

- 9 states voted against. 

- 35 states abstained from voting. 

A clear majority was established to reinforce the compliance of states to refrain from establishing diplomatic missions within Jerusalem, damaging the US’ decision to recognise the city as the Capital of Israel. 

However, even with the decisive majority, the resolution is limited with regards to the practical action that can be enacted. In short, the resolutions passed within the General Assembly are legally non-binding, unlike the measures agreed within the Security Council. This means the US can continue with their plans without further action by the United Nations to block it. Yet, the resolution has proved a powerful measure symbolically, not only in publicly condemning the US’ actions, but also in reaffirming the commitment to establish a two-state solution in the region. 

Why did so many states decide to abstain from voting on the resolution? 

Interestingly, 150 states were predicted to vote in favour of the resolution, but some decided to abstain from the voting process as a possible result of the intimidating rhetoric employed by both the US Ambassador Nikki Haley and President Donald Trump. Trump threatened to withhold trade, funding, and aid to the countries that voted in favour of the resolution, which undoubtedly influenced the voting of many states dependent on the financial aid supplied by the US.

Similarly, Nikki Haley’s letter sent to the members of the General Assembly outlined the potential consequences of opposing the US’ actions. She stated "as you consider your vote, I want you to know that the President and U.S. take this vote personally", and that she would report back to the President the names of the countries that voted against them. This shows the shift in the US’ attitude towards diplomacy - it has become more hostile than cooperative, taking an approach of pressuring states to support the US' decision, rather than persuading them. Yet, while the intimidation may have resulted in more states abstaining from the vote, a majority was still established - it remains to be seen what the consequences will be if President Trump converts his threatening rhetoric into practice. 

Why is this particular vote being covered so heavily in the press? 

Normally, the United Nation’s General Assembly passes multiple resolutions, which we usual hear very little about. For example, the resolutions passed just days before were hardly reported on by the international press, which included a resolution focused on ensuring the access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. 

One of the main reasons for the increased media coverage is the potential impact the resolution could have on the established state relations between the US and those who voted in favour of it. For example, the previous anger displayed by President Trump following Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to condemn his endorsement of the far-right group Britain First through Twitter, has increased interest in possible changes to the UK and US relationship based on another condemnation by the UK,  this time on an international stage. Likewise, the impact the resolution will have on the fragile power dynamics between China and the US may have also increased the interest in the resolution, as many anticipate tension between the two to escalate. 

Similarly, the urgency surrounding the arrangement of the emergency special session was arguably enough to garner increased media interest. The meeting of the Assembly's 193 members was requested by Arab and Muslim states, after becoming concerned by the rising tension within Israel. The inability to pass a similar resolution within the Security Council, as the US vetoed the motion, also intensified Palestinians urgency to condemn the decision. The media’s interest in this particular resolution can be seen to be based on the both the damage posed to both the US’ international relations, and the blatant concerns of those in the Middle East.  

Clearly, the rhetoric before, during, and after the vote on the resolution reminds us that the US’ new intimidating and coercive diplomatic approach will continue to pose a threat to the UN’s pursuit of international peace and security as we head into the new year. What a Merry Christmas indeed. 

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