Published on 15th November 2011 by the University Observer
On October 31, amidst widespread applause, a denial of the wishes of the United States and a threatened cut off of funds, Palestine became the 195th full member of UNESCO. The vote came in overwhelmingly at 107 to 14, with 52 abstentions.
This step will cost the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation a quarter of its yearly budget: 22 percent (about $70 million) contributed by the US, along with at least another 3 percent from Israel and Canada.
The seemingly petulant American behaviour grounds itself in 1990 legislation prohibiting funding to; “the United Nations or any specialised agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organisation the same standing as a member state”, and 1994 law banning payments to “any affiliated organisation of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organisation or group that does not have the internationally recognised attributes of statehood.”
Presumably then the same response will also be applied to additional situations. Admission to UNESCO presages Palestine’s possible acceptance into other agencies and sections of the UN that could include the World Health Organisation, the World Intellectual Property Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Security Council is already due to vote on their application next week, with the US desperately trying to find allies so as to avoid using their own veto.
Furthermore there have been suggestions that UNESCO membership could set a precedent for acceptance into the International Criminal Court. This would have interesting consequences considering the US and Israel’s refusal to partake in it. If Palestine was recognised it is possible that thereon all crimes committed by Israelis on Palestinian soil would come under the jurisdiction of the ICC.
Israel certainly is assessing the possible implications of its change in position, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu immediately moving to build 2,000 new homes in settlements around Jerusalem, withholding tax monies Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority and cancelling “VIP passes”, which enable senior Palestinian officials to travel freely. These actions have been met with anger by opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who says that Binyamin is not focused on peace or prepared to make the concessions that it would entail.
UNESCO states its purpose as being to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms. The organisation enjoys official relations with 322 NGOs, encourages the “free flow of images and words” through support for the freedom of press, and designates World Heritage Sites. However worthy this may seem, considering its diverse membership it is to be expected that controversy and conflicts will arise in the course of its decisions.
This is not the first time the US has threatened funding cuts to get their way within the organisation. In 1974 UNESCO voted to exclude Israel because of alleged damage done during archaeological excavations in Jerusalem, which were labelled a “cultural crime against humanity”. Israel was readmitted in 1977 after the US threatened to withdraw contributions worth $40 million.
Enhancing a fraught relationship, in 1984 the US itself completely withdrew because of alleged communist and Soviet Russia sympathies displayed by the organisation, only rejoining in 2003 under George Bush. UNESCO and Israel also came into conflict again when, in 2009, the former named Jerusalem the Arab Capital of Culture.
Good work by the body is not disputed. In a visit to their Paris headquarters this year, Hillary Clinton announced: “I am proud to be the first secretary of state from the United States ever to come to UNESCO, and I come because I believe strongly in your mission.”
However, like the long defunct League of Nations before it, the UN is constantly fighting questions as to its relevance and whether it commands any real power. Its highlighted reliance on the temperament of its funding members threatens to belittle any strong statements it may make, whether through words or actions such as state recognition.
The November 2nd statement by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova merely serves to highlight this incapacity, as she speaks of the global losses that will immediately result from the US funding withdrawal, and asks Congress and the American people to look for a way forward.
The extent to which the US is ignoring popular global opinion must also be assessed. The resounding support for Palestine included countries in which the US has an interest, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Libya, and many perceive the recent development as just another blow to America’s image abroad. Considering the $6 billion reputedly given annually to Israel by the US, $70 million is insubstantial. It remains to be seen whether the US will reconsider its position, and until then how exactly UNESCO will manage its budget.