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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2011 > December 2011 > UNESCO vote revisited

UNESCO vote revisited

Wednesday 30 November 2011, by Kartiga Thiyagarajah

On October 31, 107 member nations of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to admit Palestine as a member. With only 14 nations, including the United States, voting against the admission, UNESCO became the first international organization to accept Palestine as a full member. This marks the beginning of Palestine’s efforts to seek legitimacy through the United Nations (UN).

UNESCO—which uses education, science culture, communication, and information to create open dialogue between different peoples and to address world problems—stood firmly behind Palestine’s admission. “The admission of a new member state is a mark of respect and confidence,” said UNESCO director-general, Irina Bokova.

The vote, however, prompted a severe backlash from the US. According to a US law passed in the early 1990s, the nation cannot fund UN organizations that view the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a member-state. After already contributing $11.8 million to UNESCO’s 2011 budget, the US withheld a $60 million payment from the organization.

In defence of this move, White House Representative Jay Carney referred to UNESCO’s decision as “regrettable” and “premature”. He claimed that Palestine’s admission to UNESCO compromises the international community’s shared vision of a “comprehensive, just, and lasting peace” between Israel and the Palestinians. Carney stated that the Obama administration firmly believes that peace should be achieved through direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Furthermore, it believes that only after the Palestinians reach a peace agreement with Israel should they pursue their statehood efforts.

With a total planned contribution of $71.8 million to UNESCO in 2011, the US accounts for 22 per cent of the organization’s budget. UNESCO now faces a $60 million budget deficit, which Director-General Bokova has described as its “most pressing issue”. Following the US funding cut, UNESCO stalled all projects until the end of the year, with plans to review its activities in all sectors.

“We are reviewing all activities in all areas, in all sectors, including contractual commitments, staff travel, publications, communications costs, meetings, and the rest,” said Bokova. “With all these measures, we believe we can generate savings of $35 million. But this alone will not solve our problem.”

UNESCO has also begun an emergency fund-raising drive for its 2012-2013 working capital fund. In spite of such attempts, the US funding cut will undoubtedly harm UNESCO’s ability to achieve its long-term goals of eradicating poverty and promoting peace, quality education, cultural diversity, and sustainable development throughout the world. US funds were used to support several vital UNESCO programs. Such programs include supporting free and competitive media in Iraq, Tunisia, and Egypt, promoting gender equality in countries with prevalent gender discrimination, and managing mobile schools in African nations.

US funds were also employed to increase literacy amongst thousands of police officers in Afghanistan. According to Bokova, literacy programs are essential in areas of conflict, as they “give people the critical thinking skills and confidence they need to fight violent extremism.” By withholding funds from UNESCO, the US has compromised the feasibility of these development programs, particularly those in Iraq and Afghanistan, which reflect American interests. In response to the withdrawal of US funds, Bokova asked the “US administration, Congress, and the American people to find a way forward and continue support for UNESCO in these turbulent times.”

Palestine’s admission to UNESCO also sparked a backlash from the Israeli government. Not long after the vote was finalized, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the government was moving forward with the construction of 2,000 housing units in West Bank settlements and Jerusalem. The units would occupy parts of Jerusalem that Palestinians hope to include in a future state. Hence, the decision will further complicate negotiations between Israel and Palestinians and make reaching a peace agreement even more difficult.

Despite this new obstacle, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat was not discouraged. “We continue to pursue the Palestinian people’s natural and legal right to statehood and self-determination. These reckless measures will not intimidate us nor will they change our course of action.”

Although being granted membership to UNESCO was a huge success for Palestine, its subsequent bid for full UN membership on November 11 left the UN Security Council deadlocked. After France joined Britain in abstaining from the vote, Palestine could only collect eight of the nine required votes for consideration.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas must now decide on the next step in Palestine’s statehood efforts. What are the potential options?

Abbas could seek a full Security Council vote. However, following the UNESCO vote, the US vowed to veto a Security Council vote on Palestinian membership. Palestine could force this vote regardless of the US veto, leaving the US, Britain, France, and other nations, to explain their stance.

Alternatively, the Palestinians could present their case to the 193 members of the UN General Assembly and obtain super-observer status. This status would act as a first step to full membership. With super-observer status, Palestine would be permitted to join UN organizations and sign international treaties.

The decision will be made by President Abbas after he consults with members of the Arab League.

While Palestine’s journey to statehood remains unclear, its recent victory has provided the movement with increased confidence and renewed hope for future victories. For UNESCO, however, the decision has been accompanied with financial repercussions that threaten the organization’s existing programs and overall mission.

As for the US, this is just another move revealing the true nature of the country’s commitment to Mideast peace and UN organizations. The US claims, despite its mandated withdrawal of funds, to remain supportive of UNESCO and its goals.

“The United States remains deeply committed to UNESCO and its noble mission to build peace in the minds of men and women,” said David Killion, US envoy to UNESCO. “Despite the challenges ahead, we pledge to continue our efforts to find ways to support and strengthen the important work of this vital organization.”

Photo courtesy of Perealbiac,