The United Nations yesterday decided to extend to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a diplomatic protocol typically offered only to heads of state: the right to sit in the General Assembly’s beige chair.
The oversized piece of furniture on the dais is reserved for heads of state waiting to take the podium and address the General Assembly. Today, Abbas will become the first Palestinian leader to use the chair as he waits his turn to speak at this week’s session, according to a Palestinian diplomat who isn’t authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be identified.
Since 1974, Palestinian leaders have had to stand while waiting to address the world body, as they were considered representatives of a stateless people, not heads of state. Abbas’s late predecessor Yasser Arafat would rest his hand on the chair’s back in a gesture of his yearning for statehood.
The Palestinians were upgraded last year by the UN to join the Holy See as an “observer state,” which grants it the right to join UN agencies and sign treaties, though not the right to vote on resolutions. The authority used the Holy See as the precedent to make its case with the UN Office of Legal Affairs, according to the Palestinian diplomat.
Pope Paul VI was permitted to sit in the chair for the first time on Oct. 4, 1965, a year after the Holy See was upgraded to observer status, the diplomat said.
UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said in an e-mail that the UN’s Office of Legal Affairs had advised that Abbas may use the chair because the Pope also uses it in his capacity as representative of an observer state.
Israel opposed the UN General Assembly vote in November that gave the Palestinians observer status. At the time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the UN vote, which his office called a “meaningless decision,” would hinder the peace process.
For Palestinians, the diplomat said, the use of the chair by the 78-year-old Abbas marks an important symbol of sovereignty and independence before the global community.