Palestine joins UNESCO and the United States goes wild! Part I

Even before the United Nations votes on Palestine’s application for full membership—a preparatory step for its becoming a full-fledged state—one of its organs has taken a giant step to boost Palestine’s status in the community of nations.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) full membership voted yesterday to admit Palestine into its fold as its 195th full member. The vote tally was 107 to 14, with 52 abstentions, according to The New York Times (Monday, October 31, 2011).

This outcome is not surprising. Earlier in October, the UNESCO’s 58-member Executive Board voted to put Palestinian membership on the agenda of the general meeting by a vote of 40 to 4, with 14 abstentions. What is surprising is the pattern of voting and the impact of the decision on the US and its immediate action in response to the humiliation.

Joined by Germany, Australia, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Israel, among others, the US voted against Palestinian membership. The European Union failed to come to a common position. Some European countries, including France and Belgium, voted in favor, joining China, Russia, Brazil, India, and most African and Arab states.

Many other European countries (including Romania and Latvia, which had earlier voted “No” in the executive council) abstained. Others abstaining included Britain, Poland, Portugal, Denmark, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Ukraine, and Switzerland.

And the decision has sent the US into a tailspin, fuming with profound anger and bellowing hell and brimstone on UNESCO. By taking this step, UNESCO faces immediate sanctions from the US, being slapped with a mandated cutoff of American funds under federal legislation from the 1990s. That legislation, dating from 1990 and 1994, mandates a complete cutoff of American financing to any UN agency that accepts the Palestinians as a full member. State Department lawyers see no leeway in the legislation, and no possibility of a waiver.

Consequently, the UNESCO will lose one-quarter of its yearly budget—the 22% contributed by the US (about $70 million) plus another 3% contributed by Israel. As reported by The New York Times, Victoria Nuland (a State Department spokeswoman) said that American contributions to UNESCO, including $60 million scheduled for this month, would not be paid. The UNESCO has a two-year budget of $643 million for 2010–11 and a projected budget of $653 million for 2012–13.

Perhaps best known for designating world heritage sites, UNESCO is a major global development agency whose missions include promoting literacy, science, clean water, and education, including sex education and promoting equal treatment for girls and young women.

In taking this stance, the UNESCO was not ignorant of the implications; but for once, it decided to stand firm to prove to the US that it takes more than financial contributions to influence decisions in the organization. Despite the US’ threat of cutting off funds, the UNESCO did not budge. In effect, it has proved to the US that it will not be cowed into submission, which is commendable.

This will not be the first time that the US will be withdrawing funds from the UNESCO in protest against what it perceives as unfavourable to its interests. In 1984, it did so and boycotted the UNESCO over charges that the organization was corrupt, anti-Israel and anti-Western, and wanted to regulate the international news media. It rejoined the organization in 2003. What it has resorted to in this instance is not unexpected but will not lead to the death of the UNESCO.

No matter how the US’ earlier action negatively affected the operations of the UNESCO, the organization functioned to the best of its ability and did not collapse. It will continue to be on its feet until the US sees its folly and recants.

After all, indications are strong that the US benefits a lot from the activities of the UNESCO and will continue to do so if it places others’ interests above its own and supports the UNESCO’s efforts to achieve its goals at the global level instead of what it has decided to do as a form of punishment for being outmanouevred.

The atmosphere in the hall at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris after the vote speaks volumes for the UNESCO’s bold decision. According to The New York Times report, cheers filled the hall with one delegate shouting in French, “Long live Palestine!”

This vote to admit Palestine into the UNESCO is commendable for various reasons. It is a positive defiance of the US whose arm-twisting tactics have become too unbecoming in world affairs. Thus, by this majority decision, the UNESCO has stood up to the US and proved that it has the nerves to act in the collective interests of humanity; it suggests also that the UNESCO can decide for itself how to manage its affairs.

More importantly, the UNESCO’s decision suggests that with concerted efforts and decisive action, the Palestine-Israeli conflict can be resolved by means other than the one-sided approach that the US is fully backing Israel to ram down everybody’s throat to favour Israel. By taking this stance, the UNESCO has proved that Palestine has a genuine cause that must be supported. What is left now is to move the Palestine cause for statehood a notch higher as the UN itself facilitates efforts as it did for Israel itself to become a state in 1948.

I don’t see anything wrong with a Palestinian statehood. Already, it is being run by a functioning government in a particular politically defined territory, however hamstrung it might prove to be at times because of conflicts with Hamas and stifling economic constraints.

What exactly does Israel or the US stand to lose if Palestine becomes a state to warrant their fierce but misguided opposition to anything aimed at uplifting Palestine? What is good for Israel as a state that is bad for Palestine as such? The US and Israel, as well as their allies anywhere in the world, have no moral justification for all that they’ve been doing to thwart Palestine’s efforts at achieving statehood.

Continued in the next installment…

By Dr. Michael J.K. Bokor

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