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, 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[update], 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.
Article 4 of Chapter II of the United Nations Charter specifies the qualifications for membership in the United Nations:
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.
An application for membership must be approved by the United Nations Security Council (which is subject to a veto) and then the General Assembly.
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.
As of 2015, there are two permanent non-member observer states at 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 failed to secure Security Council approval. Both 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 Holy See's status as a non-member state permanent observer in the United Nations has been questioned, as not having the attributes of a state.
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."
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.
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|
|Democratic People's Republic of Korea||1973||1991||18 years|
|Democratic Republic of Viet Nam||1975||—||— (observer for 1 year)|
|Federal Republic of Germany||1952||1973||21 years|
|German Democratic Republic||1972||1973||1 year|
|Republic of Korea||1949||1991||42 years|
|Republic of Viet Nam||1952||—||— (observer for 24 years)|
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.
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||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||Date observer status was granted|
|African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States||15 Oct 1981 (A/RES/36/4)|
|African Development Bank||28 Oct 1987 (A/RES/42/10)|
|African Union (formerly the Organisation of African Unity)||11 Oct 1965 (A/RES/2011(XX))
15 Aug 2002 (General Assembly decision 56/475)
|Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean||17 Oct 1988 (A/RES/43/6)|
|Andean Community of Nations||22 Oct 1997 (A/RES/52/6)|
|Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization (formerly the Asian-African Legal Consultative Committee)||13 Oct 1980 ( A/RES/35/2)|
|Asian Development Bank||19 Nov 2002 (A/RES/57/30)|
|Association of Caribbean States||15 Oct 1998 (A/RES/53/17)|
|Association of Southeast Asian Nations||4 Dec 2006 (A/RES/61/44)|
|Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization||8 Oct 1999 (A/RES/54/5)|
|Caribbean Community||17 Oct 1991 (A/RES/46/8)|
|Central American Integration System||19 Oct 1995 (A/RES/50/2)|
|Collective Security Treaty Organization||2 Dec 2004 (A/RES/59/50)|
|Common Fund for Commodities||23 Nov 2005 (A/RES/60/26)|
|Commonwealth of Independent States||24 Mar 1994 (A/RES/48/237)|
|Commonwealth Secretariat||18 Oct 1976 (A/RES/31/3)|
|Community of Portuguese Language Countries||26 Oct 1999 (A/RES/54/10)|
|Community of Sahelo-Saharan States||12 Dec 2001 (A/RES/56/92)|
|Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia||6 Dec 2007 (A/RES/62/77)|
|Council of Europe||17 Oct 1989 (A/RES/44/6)|
|Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf||6 Dec 2007 (A/RES/62/78)|
|East African Community||9 Dec 2003 (A/RES/58/86)|
|Economic Community of Central African States||12 Dec 2000 (A/RES/55/161)|
|Economic Community of West African States||2 Dec 2004 (A/RES/59/51)|
|Economic Cooperation Organization||13 Oct 1993 (A/RES/48/2)|
|Eurasian Economic Union (formerly the Eurasian Economic Community)||9 Dec 2003 (A/RES/58/84)|
|Energy Charter Conference||6 Dec 2007 (A/RES/62/75)|
|Eurasian Development Bank||6 Dec 2007 (A/RES/62/76)|
|European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)||14 Dec 2012 (A/RES/67/102)|
|Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI)||16 Aug 2013 (A/RES/68/191)|
|GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development||9 Dec 2003 (A/RES/58/85)|
|Hague Conference on Private International Law||23 Nov 2005 (A/RES/60/27)|
|Ibero-American Conference||23 Nov 2005 (A/RES/60/28)|
|Indian Ocean Commission||4 Dec 2006 (A/RES/61/43)|
|Inter-American Development Bank||12 Dec 2000 (A/RES/55/160)|
|International Centre for Migration Policy Development||19 Nov 2002 (A/RES/57/31)|
|International Conference on the Great Lakes Region of Africa||16 Dec 2009 (A/RES/64/123)|
|International Criminal Court||13 Sep 2004 (A/RES/58/318)|
|International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol)||15 Oct 1996 (A/RES/51/1)|
|International Development Law Institute||12 Dec 2001 (A/RES/56/90)|
|International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea||11 Dec 2008 (A/RES/63/133)|
|International Hydrographic Organization||12 Dec 2001 (A/RES/56/91)|
|International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance||9 Dec 2003 (A/RES/58/83)|
|International Organization for Migration||16 Oct 1992 (A/RES/47/4)|
|International Organization of la Francophonie||10 Nov 1978 (A/RES/33/18)
18 December 1998 (General Assembly decision 53/453)
|International Seabed Authority||24 Oct 1996 (A/RES/51/6)|
|International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea||17 Dec 1996 (A/RES/51/204)|
|International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (or the World Conservation Union)||17 Dec 1999 (A/RES/54/195)|
|Islamic Development Bank Group||28 Mar 2007 (A/RES/61/259)|
|Italian-Latin American Institute||6 Dec 2007 (A/RES/62/74)|
|Latin American Economic System (SELA)||13 Oct 1980 (A/RES/35/3)|
|Latin American Integration Association||23 Nov 2005 (A/RES/60/25)|
|Latin American Parliament||13 Oct 1993 (A/RES/48/4)|
|League of Arab States||1 Nov 1950 (A/RES/477 (V))|
|OPEC Fund for International Development||4 Dec 2006 (A/RES/61/42)|
|Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development||15 Oct 1998 (A/RES/53/6)|
|Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States||2 Dec 2004 (A/RES/59/52)|
|Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe||13 Oct 1993 (A/RES/48/5)|
|Organization of American States||16 Oct 1948 (A/RES/253 (III))|
|Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (formerly the Organisation of the Islamic Conference)||10 Oct 1975 (A/RES/3369 (XXX))|
|Pacific Islands Forum||17 Oct 1994 (A/RES/49/1)|
|Partners in Population and Development||19 Nov 2002 (A/RES/57/29)|
|Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean||16 Dec 2009 (A/RES/64/124)|
|Permanent Court of Arbitration||13 Oct 1993 (A/RES/48/3)|
|Union of South American Nations||9 Dec 2011 (A/RES/66/484)|
|Regional Centre on Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes Region, the Horn of Africa and Bordering States||6 Dec 2007 (A/RES/62/73)|
|Shanghai Cooperation Organisation||2 Dec 2004 (A/RES/59/48)|
|South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation||2 Dec 2004 (A/RES/59/53)|
|Southern African Development Community||2 Dec 2004 (A/RES/59/49)|
|South Centre||11 Dec 2008 (A/RES/63/131)|
|The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria||16 Dec 2009 (A/RES/64/122)|
|University for Peace||11 Dec 2008 (A/RES/63/132)|
|World Customs Organization (formerly the Customs Cooperation Council)||23 Mar 1999 (A/RES/53/216)|
|Organization or entity||Date observer status was granted|
|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)|
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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