Get off the fence about Palestine NZ

NZ’s position on recognising Palestinian statehood is a muddled, awkward fence-sitting one, especially when international opinion is turning towards recognition as a tool for peace says Treasa Dunworth

Israel Palestine border

Opinion: On May 10, the United Nations General Assembly called on the Security Council to admit Palestine as a full member of the organisation and conferred on Palestine enhanced participation rights in the work of the United Nations.

Along with 142 other states, New Zealand voted in favour of the resolution. In its subsequent statement, New Zealand explained that its vote should not be implied as recognising Palestinian statehood.

Though Palestinian statehood was “inevitable”, New Zealand said, it did not consider that “now, in the middle of the current crisis, [was] the optimal time to progress the issue of full statehood”. That was because “some important issues, such as the political authority of a future Palestinian state, remain unsettled”.

The explanation is at odds with New Zealand’s affirmative vote. Calling on the Security Council to admit Palestine means that states voting in favour of this resolution logically must themselves recognise Palestine as a state (only states can be admitted as members of the UN). It is therefore difficult to understand New Zealand’s position, other than being a kind of muddled, awkward fence-sitting.

Back at home, things are also unclear. Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has confirmed that New Zealand remains an advocate of a two-state solution and understands that, in his words, “for that to happen, Palestine does need to get recognised as an independent state”.


Israel’s defiance of international law extends to the International Criminal Court, which is considering a request by the court’s prosecutor to issue arrest warrants against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

He went on to say: “That’s why we have been urging Israel to make sure it is compliant with international law, ensure that it gets aid into Gaza, equally we need Hamas to release hostages. And we need both parties to get round a table to negotiate a peace settlement and ultimately start the process around a two-state solution.”

But none of these are within the power of Palestine (even the release of the hostages, who are being held by Hamas), and Israel continues to act in blatant defiance of its obligations under international law. This is despite no less than three separate decisions from the International Court of Justice calling on it to comply with its obligations, most recently a ruling ordering Israel to halt its military offensive in Rafah last week.

Israel’s defiance of international law extends to the International Criminal Court, which is considering a request by the court’s prosecutor to issue arrest warrants against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is also ignoring General Assembly and Security Council resolutions (going so far as to shred a copy of the UN Charter to castigate the members of the General Assembly).

Considering Israel’s intransigence, Luxon’s “urging” is clearly not going to change Israel’s direction of travel. This means that – on Luxon’s position – Palestinian statehood is dependent on Israeli actions.

Our foreign minister’s statements are also opaque. In April, Winston Peters said that recognition was a question of “when, not if”. More recently, in an interview with RNZ, he elaborated: “However, how would you recognise a utility or a unity that doesn’t exist? Who would speak for them? How would it start?” Palestinian self-determination answers all of these questions.

In addition to a disregard for the imperative of self-determination, all of these statements suggest that New Zealand is still stuck in the time-warp of the interim agreements between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel, the Oslo Accords setting out peace-first-then-statehood, signed in the mid-1990s.

But the tide of international opinion is turning away from that approach. This week, beyond their votes in the General Assembly, Ireland, Norway and Spain have all explicitly recognised Palestine, stating that they see this as a “pathway to peace”. In the last few days Slovenia has also announced that it will explicitly recognise Palestine next month with the same justification. Expectations are that more European states will join the growing momentum. In other words, international opinion seems to be turning towards recognition as a tool for peace, rather than peace as a pre-requisite for recognition.

There is no explicit legal obligation on New Zealand to recognise Palestine as a state, but there is a legal and moral duty to do what we can to advance the cause of peace by virtue of the United Nations Charter.

By themselves, the acts of recognition by Ireland, Norway, Slovenia, and Spain will not magically bring about peace – although they are an immediate and important symbol of hope and solidarity for Palestinians.

As the Irish taoiseach, Simon Harris, explained, the Irish recognition offers “hope and encouragement to the people of Palestine at one of their darkest hours”.

In New Zealand, under our constitutional arrangements, state recognition is within the power of the executive. However, when New Zealand was considering its position on the International Criminal Court in 1999 – also a decision for the executive – it took the step of holding a debate in Parliament to publicly discuss that decision.

There is precedent to bring matters of public importance before Parliament for public debate, even when as a formal constitutional matter, the ultimate decision lies with the executive.

If we take the executive’s position (that statehood should come after peace has been restored, rather than seeing it as a step that could contribute to peace) at face value and it is being advanced in good faith, it raises an important and difficult issue and one that should be immediately and publicly debated in Parliament just as we have done previously with the decision to join the International Criminal Court.

In that way, it would provide the Opposition parties the chance to formally distance themselves from the executive’s position, and the New Zealand public would be able to better understand – and assess – New Zealand’s continued fence-sitting in the face of this ongoing and relentless horror.

Associate Professor Treasa Dunworth, Faculty of Law.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, Get off the fence, NZ – we have a legal and moral duty towards Palestine

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