/ 4 November 2011

US punishes Unesco over Palestine

Us Punishes Unesco Over Palestine

The United States this week cut off funds to the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (Unesco) as a punitive action after the Palestinian Authority was accepted into the United Nations agency as a full member in defiance of American, Israeli and European pressure.

The overwhelming backing for the Palestinians’ bid to join Unesco was a huge boost for their campaign for international recognition of an independent state and a blow to Israel and the US, which had opposed the move.

Members voted by 107 votes to 14 to accept Palestine as a full member state to loud cheers from delegates in Paris. Fifty-two countries, including the United Kingdom, abstained.
Within hours, the US announced it would withhold its huge contribution to Unesco’s budget as a result of the vote.

State department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said a 21-year-old law prohibiting the payment of funds to any UN body accepting the Palestinians as full members gave the US no choice.

A $60-million transfer that was due later this month will be halted, which will have serious consequences for Unesco activities. The US contributes 22% of the agency’s annual budget.

Unesco’s decision was “regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal to a comprehensive, just and lasting peace [between Israelis and Palestinians]”, said Nuland.

Israel also hinted at punitive measures. A statement from the foreign ministry said it would “consider its further steps and ongoing co-operation” with Unesco following the decision. The move was a “unilateral Palestinian manoeuvre which will bring no change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement”, it said.

Nimrod Barkan, Israel’s ambassador to Unesco, described the vote as a “tragedy”. “Unesco deals in science, not science fiction. They forced on Unesco a political subject out of its [area of] competence,” he said.

Historic vote
Palestinian officials, who described the vote as historic, were jubilant. “This vote will erase a tiny part of the injustice done to the Palestinian people,” Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malk told the Unesco gathering in Paris.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the vote represented “support for freedom and justice”.

In a statement to the Palestinian news agency, Wafa, he said: “This vote is for the sake of peace and represents international consensus on support for the legitimate Palestinian national rights of our people, the foremost of which is the establishment of its independent state.”

Some ridiculed the American response. “You would think we were asking to be accepted by al-Qaeda,” senior official Nabil Shaath said before the vote.

The swift action of the US in withdrawing funding is likely to increase cynicism among Palestinians about the credibility of the US as a mediator between them and the Israelis.

Membership of Unesco is largely symbolic, although it will allow the Palestinian Authority to seek world heritage status for historical sites. But Israel will probably object vigorously to applications for sites in areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem currently under its control. The Palestinian Authority is expected to seek Unesco world heritage status for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

A nomination attempt was rejected earlier this year because the Palestinians were not a full Unesco member.

The nomination of other sites is expected to follow.

Monday’s vote was the first taken in a UN body since the Palestinians embarked on their international campaign for recognition of an independent state. Abbas submitted a formal application for full membership of the UN in September in defiance of US opposition.

The process has become mired in UN bureaucracy after the Security Council set up a subcommittee to examine the application. No date has been set for a decision, which is bound to go against the Palestinians as the US has pledged to veto the move.

The Palestinians may then take their case to the UN General Assembly, although that body cannot grant full membership without Security Council approval.

The vote at the Unesco general conference is an indication of the extent of support in the international community for the Palestinian case.

France was among those that voted in the Palestinians’ favour, a move that could indicate its as yet unstated stance in the forthcoming Security Council vote on full membership of the UN.

The UK has not declared its voting intentions but is expected to line up with the US.

Other countries that voted in favour included China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa.

The US, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands voted against.

American and European diplomats made unsuccessful efforts to seek a postponement of the Unesco vote in the run-up to the debate at the general conference in Paris.

Palestinian negotiators have largely despaired of securing a state through talks with Israel while the latter continues to build and expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

They are also deeply disappointed about the lack of pressure exerted on Israel by the US. Many feel that taking the Palestinian cause into the international arena offer a greater potential for progress. —