As the United Nations turns 75 years old this month, it is worth noting that its membership has more than tripled — almost quadrupled — since its founding in 1945. From 50 signatories at the San Francisco conference that year to 193 member states and two with observer state status today, the UN has expanded significantly throughout its history. But what fledgling nation, like Kosovo, or independence movement, like the Polisario Front in Western Sahara, is likely to join the UN next?
The UN’s four-easy-steps guide on how to join the world body says membership is “open to all peace-loving States that accept the obligations contained in the United Nations Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able to carry out these obligations.” For some national or separatist movements and other aspirants, it is more difficult to become a member than it sounds, as the veto-holders of the Security Council can deny an applicant’s acceptance. That complicates, for example, Taiwan’s possible accession goals with China and Kosovo’s with Russia.
While those and more-obvious candidates come to mind, including Palestine, others could take the world by surprise, a few experts say. The last country to join the UN was South Sudan, in 2011, which has been at war with itself, on and off, since it became independent that year from Sudan.
Stephen Schlesinger, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School, thinks there are many contenders who could join the UN next: “Separate from the Taiwan situation, I am also thinking of Scotland, Catalonia, Kurdistan, Palestine, Kosovo, the Polisario, Biafra in Nigeria, the Uighurs in China, the Rakhine State (including the Rohingya) and other breakaway statelets in Myanmar, and other independence movements,” he wrote in an email.
The Independent Diplomat, a nonprofit advisory group based in New York City, works with some of these small movements, such as the Polisario Front, the political organization representing the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara, a disputed territory in northwest Africa that Morocco claims as its own.
“There are a number of possibilities,” Marlene Spoerri, the UN expert at the organization, told PassBlue. “Kosovo comes to mind, given where Kosovo is in respect of negotiations.”
The Balkan nation has official recognition from more than 100 UN member states, according to the UN’s mission in Kosovo, called Unmik. Kosovo is also a member of some international organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, but it was denied Unesco membership in 2015.
“I can imagine a situation in the medium term in which Belgrade and Pristina come to terms, and that would lead eventually to Kosovo becoming a UN member,” Richard Gowan, the UN expert at the International Crisis Group, said. “I think that it’s more likely that you will see Kosovo get in than Palestine become a fully fledged member anytime soon, given the ongoing difficulties around the Middle East peace process.”
Kosovo, which unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, still has to reach a peace agreement with Serbia to move forward with UN accession.
Russia, which does not recognize Kosovo, said it would veto its accession as long as Serbia does not recognize Kosovo.
“Such a decision is taken by the General Assembly upon recommendation of the Security Council,” Anna Evstigneeva, a Russian deputy ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue in an email. “At this point I see no chance that the Security Council grants it. The status of Kosovo should be settled in accordance with international law, including [Security Council Resolution] UNSCR 1244. Belgrade and Pristina are still on their way to finding a viable and mutually acceptable solution. And this road is bumpy and ambushed.”
While progress has been made economically between Kosovo and Serbia, with the United States-backed normalization agreement between the two foes sealed last month at the White House and the recognition of Israel by Kosovo, Pristina, its capital, has far to go to achieve full political recognition, Gowan said.
“I think the economic agreement was largely for show and experts who’ve looked closely at the text say that it doesn’t represent a massive leap towards settling because of a status question,” he noted. “But nonetheless, Pristina and Belgrade are talking, they have discussed options like land swaps to resolve the status issue.”
The UN mission in Kosovo is also involved in negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo. In 2013, they signed an agreement governing normalization of relations between the two. According to the mission’s website: “Unmik continues its constructive engagement with Pristina and Belgrade, the communities in Kosovo and regional and international actors.”
Kosovo’s ministry of foreign affairs did not follow up on PassBlue’s request for an interview with its director of international organizations.
“If there is political will in the Security Council to address this issue in a sustainable way, you could see a referendum take place and see self-determination,” Spoerri of the Independent Diplomat said.
The UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara has been on the Security Council agenda for almost 30 years, and while this is a mostly frozen conflict, Spoerri thinks steps could be taken quickly if the UN mission, called Minurso, holds its long-awaited referendum. That would enable the Sahrawis, the indigenous people of Western Sahara, to choose between integrating with Morocco or going free.
But the position of UN special envoy for Western Sahara has remained vacant since 2019, and the Trump administration’s sudden, current push for normalizing relations between some Arab countries and Israel may mean trouble for the Sahrawis’ liberation goals. Additionally, Minurso’s mandate is up for renewal on Oct. 30, and though it is technically a rollover, emphasis is being made on the need to appoint a new personal envoy and to “respect” the mission’s mandate, a Security Council diplomat said.
In 2018, there was a sudden possibility, also triggered by the Trump administration, to resolve the Western Sahara standoff, but the jump-start died quickly. The US has reportedly been pushing Morocco to recognize Israel in exchange for Washington’s recognition of Morocco’s control over Western Sahara, but on Oct. 22, a State Department official denied the issue was “on the table right now.” The move is likely to be on hold until the Nov. 3 presidential election in the US, experts suggest. An Israeli-Moroccan deal could be a serious setback for the Sahrawis.
“No bilateral deal should come at the expense of US commitment to international law and the right of the Sahrawi people to determine their own future,” Spoerri said, referring to the numerous Security Council resolutions mandating a referendum for Western Sahara and other issues. In 1974, the International Court of Justice also ruled in favor of a referendum supporting Sahrawis’ self-determination, and although 84 countries initially recognized the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the formal name of the quasi-independent state, several countries have since withdrawn or frozen their recognition.
Moreover, an Oct. 15, 2020 letter from German nongovernmental organizations to the German ambassador to the UN and seen by PassBlue expressed concern that “the political process in the Security Council regarding the decolonization of Western Sahara” has “not only stalled for decades, but now faces real failure.”
The letter’s signers “urgently” asked Ambassador Christoph Heusgen to “put the influence of Germany on France and the other so-called members of the Security Council who are ‘friends of the Western Sahara,’ so that the political process will start at the end of October 2020 and that it is not buried.” (Germany is an elected member of the Council.)
Other movements that may not be in a constant struggle for independence but that could move fast with political will are located in the West.
“I think the really fascinating question is actually whether Scotland will be a UN member in its own right 20 or 30 years from now,” Gowan, who is British, said.
Scottish voters were asked in 2014 if they wanted to become independent from the United Kingdom, and 45 percent said yes. After the Brexit vote, the Scottish National Party, which is the leader on the independence matter, argued that Scotland was being taken out of the European Union against its will, as a majority of Scottish people voted to stay in the European Union in 2016.
“I think that if Scotland were to vote for independence in a referendum, organized by the UK authorities, then actually Edinburgh could move very quickly to become a member of the UN,” Gowan said. “The UK would not, in that scenario, throw up the sort of objections that Belgrade has thrown up over Kosovo, for example.”
If Scotland left Britain, and there are inklings that another referendum could be held, it could also alter the dynamics of the Security Council, with Britain being one of its five permanent members and a veto holder.
“Some people would ask whether the UK could keep its permanent seat on the Security Council,” Gowan said. “If London lost control of Scotland, the answer to that is actually, quite simply, yes. Russia is still a permanent member of the Security Council, despite the dissolution of the USSR.”
According to Schlesinger: “Given the increasing integrated regional structures around the world — for example, the European Union — such fissures may be allowed to happen more easily. But I would not count on it. The counter to such breakups is the strong nationalism, which is now sweeping the globe — which means nation-states are insisting on holding onto their territories against all odds.”
Palestine and Taiwan
Another name on the list of potential UN member states is, of course, Palestine, one of two bodies with official UN nonmember observer state status, along with the Holy See. But the instability in the Middle East and the current lack of dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians continue to make the conflict hard to solve, even if two Persian Gulf nations, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as Sudan, recently normalized ties with Israel. The Saudis have yet to take that leap as they remain loyal to the Palestinian two-state solution, which is embedded in numerous UN Security Council resolutions.
Taiwan is another case that is unlikely to change soon, considering China’s rising power at the UN as well as its insistence on controlling Taiwan, including by military means, if needed, in reaction to new efforts by the Trump administration to bring Taiwan into the UN.
“There is, of course, the special case of Taiwan, which China refuses to allow admission into the UN,” Schlesinger said.
Will the UN reach the even number of 200 members when it turns 100 years old?
“My guess is that it could happen one day that the UN might have 200 member states, but it is a long-term consideration and is unlikely to occur anytime soon,” Schlesinger said.
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