Danica Bijeljac

World News


UNESCO Membership for Palestine may leave America Out in the Cold

UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has a number of objectives including: attaining education for all; mobilising science knowledge and policy for sustainable development; addressing emerging social and ethical challenges; fostering cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue and a culture of peace; and building inclusive knowledge societies through information and communication.

It can now add state making to its list of objectives. As it has been reported: A state which doesn’t officially exist was granted membership of a UN body.” UNESCO voted 107 votes to 14 (with 52 abstentions) to admit Palestine as the 195th member state to U.N organisation. Because Palestine is not a member of the U.N. – it is not in fact a state – admission to UNESCO required a recommendation by the Organization’s Executive Board and a two thirds majority vote in favour by the General Conference of Member States present and voting (abstentions are not considered as votes).

Australia voted with America (and 14 other countries) against the Palestinian membership. Leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Bob Brown, argued that Australia could have: “matched at least the U.K. and New Zealand in abstaining, if not joining France and China and India in supporting the Palestinians’ right to equality – their day in the sun, their ability to be recognised.

It is probable that Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs would have wanted to see Australia abstain, in order to keep his option open for a likely future career at the U.N. Gillard has said nothing official, however had indicated she would not support a U.N. General Assembly vote on any change to Palestinian status.

American opposition has been immediate and clear. Firstly, the decision triggers a 1994 law that forces the Obama administration to cut financial ties with UNESCO because of its recognition of Palestine. The act states that the U.S. would “never provide funding to any U.N. body that granted full membership or conveyed statehood upon Palestine until a permanent peace deal had been brokered between Israel and Palestine. Since no deal exists between the two, the U.S. is claiming they have no choice but to uphold their own law and cancel UNESCO funding.”

The U.S is opposed to any recognition of Palestinian statehood by means other than U.S terms. While UNESCO, the organization American ignored for two decades, is not central to American national interests and could again sideline its participation, the decision to admit Palestine means UNESCO will now come under intense U.S. scrutiny. As Salon reported, the UNESCO vote may not be the “independent and sovereign Palestinian state the U.S. claims it supports, but it certainly helps achieve a few of Palestine’s long-denied rights. And the 20 years of U.S.-controlled peace process has produced nothing for Palestinians except a tripling of illegal Israeli settlers on their land, certainly nothing remotely resembling a Palestinian state.”

As a direct result of UENSCO’s decision, which the U.S government sees as “regrettable,” a $60 million payment due from the U.S. to UNESCO this month will now be withheld. America’s view is that Palestinian statehood should emerge from negotiations with Israel not from third party acts of international organisations. As such, Palestinian sovereignty can only be recognised by other states, specifically Israel. The decision will do little for Washington’s relationship with the Paris based organization that it had previously boycotted between 1984 and 2003.

Canada, who also voted against Palestine becoming a member, is considering withholding its $10 million contribution and appears to be considering its future participation in the organisation it joined as a founding member in 1946. Other states who voted against Palestinian membership included Germany and Sweden. France joined China and India in supporting Palestine membership. Most Arab, African and Latin American states voted for inclusion. Japan and Britain abstained. Arab states braved intense U.S. and French diplomatic pressure to bring the motion before the UNESCO executive committee earlier this month, which passed it by 40-4 with 14 abstentions.

For Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, the result “represented a significant symbolic victory” for Palestinian statehood. With Palestinian membership in UNESCO safe, only the Charter remains to be signed, UNESCO membership is being seen by many as a back door towards Palestinian statehood. Whether this was the intent of UNESCO remains unclear. There are implications for America that are greater than a falling out with UNESCO.

Other U.N. organisations may now take UNESCO’s lead and also recognise Palestine, should they do this, the U.S will be forced to also withdraw from those agencies. One that is problematic for the U.S is the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). WIPO, formed by Convention in 1967, is a specialized U.N. agency that facilitates, administers, and registers intellectual property. WIPO has 184 member states representing 90 percent of countries in the world. Should WIPO also admit Palestine as a member state it would force the U.S. to quit the organization. In protecting intellectual property, WIPO had become a powerful friend to the U.S in its efforts to curb piracy and to protect U.S patented software. WIPO is one of 16 specialized U.N. agencies that administers’ 23 international treaties dealing with different aspects of intellectual property and monopolies on knowledge.

Republicans in America are particularly talking up the dire consequences of UNESCO’s decision, and it is more than the withdrawal of funding. Lindsey Graham, Republican Senator for South Carolina has said: “This could be catastrophic for the U.S.-U.N. relationship. This could be the tipping point. There’s a lot of bipartisan support for cutting off funding to any political U.N. organisation that would do this. What you are going to do is eventually lose congressional support for our participation in the United Nations. That’s what’s at risk here.” This follows Senator Graham’s request that all financial assistance to Libya be repaid to American taxpayers. Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee chairman Patrick Leahy has joined most other Republicans saying that the UNESCO decision, and any decision by any other U.N agency, will invoke U.S. law regarding the recognition of Palestine.

The U.S seems to have learnt little from its previous run-ins with the U.N. not seem to understanding the newly emerging international order of fragile economies, citizens rejections of austerity packages, and emerging powerhouses of China, India and Brazil. The U.S, as Suzanne Nossel argued in shadow of September 2001, cannot rely on its once powerful strategy of curbing international organisations at its pleasure. Rather, it needs to translate the last of its power and influence on diplomacy. America’s strength “lies ultimately not in the ability to steamroll the world community” but in its “art of retail diplomacy as a tool for multilateral advocacy.”

Multilateralism is not a dirty word among Republicans. Former Republican General Wesley Clark talked of “efficient multilateralism” during the 2004 presidential elections, saying he would use diplomacy and law as opposed to “decisive force” in foreign relations. This matched the Democrats rhetoric, with former Vermont Governor Howard Dean saying (at the same election) he wanted the U.S to “set a positive example and work together” to “meet the challenges facing the global community.” John Edwards urged America to lead in cooperation and John Kerry, the 2004 Democrat nominee, told supporters he would “work with allies across the world to defend and extend the frontiers of freedom.” As John Tepperman argues, “the problem with these sorts of vague promises” is that they are “notoriously hard for presidents to make good on.”

With an election coming up and with a hostile congress and public, Obama it seems will again take the road of unilateralism and return to a cold war with at least UNESCO, if not the U.N.