Guy Goodwin-Gill is a Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford and Professor of International Refugee Law, University of Oxford. Previously, he was Professor of Asylum Law at the University of Amsterdam and Legal Adviser in the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 1976-1988. He practises as a Barrister from Blackstone Chambers, London.[i]
The bid by Palestine for full UN membership in September last has generated controversy, discussion, reflection, and doubt, all now helped along by UNESCO’s recent decision to admit Palestine as a State of full capacity.
The questions arising here, of course, are not just sterile, academic ones about the incidents and criteria of statehood. Rather, we are at an intensely political moment, and what we are seeing is deep-seated frustration on the part, not only of Palestinians, but also once again, of substantial numbers of the world community who see justice for the people of Palestine endlessly obstructed by the intransigence of the Israeli Government.
In this highly contested context, and from a limited international law perspective, Palestinian ‘statehood’ can only seem indeterminate and uncertain, considered against traditional, Montevideo Convention criteria – a fluctuating and hitherto uncounted population, borders at the mercy of realignment by superior force, daily restrictions on the capacity to govern itself. And yet, as many have said, the conception of the Palestinian State may still have its uses, and offer the potential for Palestinians to put their complaints, their disputes, their rights and their claims on a higher plane, and to access more directly a variety of international mechanisms to assist their cause, bringing about or bringing closer that goal of a State in international law, a national home for the people of Palestine which has been the stated aim of the international community for over sixty years.
Today, however, I do not want to look so much at the issue of Palestinian statehood, but rather at that the ‘Ur-question’ – the question behind the question, the question that we can and should ask of every State, actual and potential. And that question is about who represents the State in its relations with other States, and by what right or claim, and about whether this is a matter of international legal concern.