14 November 2011

(This article was first published at  the Comment Mideast)

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State Department Spokeswoman, Victoria-Nuland
State Department Spokeswoman, Victoria-Nuland

On 31st October, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, or UNESCO, voted to admit Palestine as a full member. The vote was as highly politicised as it was controversial. In response to the result, Israel has intensified settlement building around the West Bank, with plans for a further 2,000 homes near Jerusalem unveiled. America has announced that it will slash all funding to the organisation, amounting to about $80 million (£50 million) per annum, or 22% of UNESCO’s annual budget. The decision is widely hailed as an important step in Palestine’s mission to achieve statehood; cheering erupted as the results were announced to the voting assembly. However, there are many far-reaching and potentially serious global repercussions that may arise as a consequence of UNESCO’s decision.

There was a large majority of 107 in favour of Palestine’s bid to join UNESCO, including the emerging BRICS organisation (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and 9 members of the UN Security Council. In opposition were only 14 countries, of which Israel and America have predictably been the two most vociferous. Opposition to the Palestinian bid is founded upon the idea that UNESCO will be the first of many UN organisations that Palestine will attempt to join in order to legitimise and strengthen its claim to statehood; this is an issue on which the UN Security Council is soon to vote.

The opposition argues that this route for recognition destabilises the entire peace process, and that Palestine can only be officially recognised through the formal medium of negotiation. US Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chairman of the House of Foreign Affairs Committee, described the decision as “anti-Israel and anti-peace.” The peace process, though, has been choked into stagnation since last year over the irresolvable contention surrounding Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. It seems perhaps ironic that Netanyahu has ordered the building of 2,000 new homes in response to a move that he claims is damaging to possibility of peace. Victoria Nuland, a spokesperson for the US State Department, stated that UNESCO’s decision was “regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goals of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

According to Riyad Mansour, Palestinian Ambassador to the UN, though, they were simply “trying to become … involved in a collective process with the rest of humanity in defending treasures of humanity;” an endeavour, he said, that “would not be offensive to anyone.” Nimrod Barkan, Israeli Ambassador to UNESCO, conversely lamented that “the organization of science has opted to adopt a resolution which is a resolution of science fiction.” He added that “there is no Palestinian state.”

The repercussions of UNESCO’s decision, though, extend much further than fuelling the customary squabbling between Israel and Palestine. America’s withdrawal of funding to the organisation will clearly have a heavy impact on UNESCO’s ability to implement its noble mission “to contribute to the building of-

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peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development” and so on. In accordance with the UNESCO’s procedural rules, if America does not pay its dues to the organisation for two years, it will lose its right to be a voting member and will become an observer state. However, there seems to be no alternative; America is now statutorily prohibited to financially support UNESCO.

An act of congressional legislation passed in 1990, before the 1993 Oslo Accords, forbids America to provide funding to “the United Nations or any specialised agency thereof which accords to the Palestine Liberation Organisation the same standing as a member state.” A further act of 1994 more vaguely bans payments to “any affiliated organisation of the United Nations which grants full membership … to any group that does not have the internationally recognised attributes of statehood.” The only way that America would be legitimately able to resume payments to UNESCO is by repealing these laws. However, as the current House of Representatives has such a Republican majority, it seems extremely unlikely that this will occur until at least after the next election. Obama will be reluctant to jeopardise his electoral standing by attempting to push Congress or challenge these laws, following what could be construed as an anti-Israeli agenda.

In each organisational body of the UN, voting rights equate to political sway. It seems inevitable, then, that as America is statutorily forbidden to resume payments, it will lose any influence in the forum of UNESCO. Some fear that Palestine’s admission to the organisation presages further Palestinian attempts to join more UN agencies. Judging by the overwhelming success of the UNESCO bid, this is not an unlikely possibility. However, each UN organisation that allows Palestinian membership will necessarily lose all funding from America, according to the terms of the congressional legislation. As a result, after the procedurally allotted time for each agency has elapsed, America will lose voting rights. By passing such legislation, America seems to have shot itself in the foot.

If America is forced to relinquish its influence in each UN organisation that admits Palestinian membership, its legitimate international power is sure to diminish. If Palestine is admitted, for example, to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), American funding will be forced to stop and its influence correspondingly compromised. Influence in the IAEA is fundamentally necessary to protecting national security interests. Similarly, Palestinian membership of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) or the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), for instance, could see America’s global economic and commercial sway heavily reduced.

American influence is arguably already diminished, with only 13 other countries voting against Palestine’s bid at UNESCO despite months of American lobbying. For America to lose its legitimate power in any UN organisation, though, is opening up the world stage to any number of contenders who wish to fill the gap. The repercussions of Palestine’s admission to UNESCO reach much further than Middle East, and involve far more serious issues than “treasures of humanity.” It is in America’s interest to recognise Palestine, and not to veto its bid for statehood at the UN Security Council. As former senator Timothy Wirth stated, “Congress is setting the stage for America’s waning influence over international affairs,” and the longer Palestine is not recognised, the more damaging it will be for America.


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On 31st October, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, or UNESCO, voted to admit Palestine as a full member. The vote was as highly politicised as it was controversial." />