The UNESCO meltdown

October 27, 2011

By Alan Elsner
The opinions expressed are his own.

On Monday, unless the Palestinians can be persuaded to back down, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will vote to accept Palestine as a full member state, triggering an automatic cutoff of U.S. funding and wreaking havoc with many of the agency’s programs.

Under legislation adopted by Congress over 15 years ago, the United States is mandated to withdraw from any U.N. agency that accepts Palestine as a full member state in the absence of a peace treaty with Israel.

The U.S.’s withdrawal means that it would no longer fund about 22 percent of the UNESCO budget – around $70 million a year. According to the website of the U.S. mission to UNESCO, some of the programs it funds that presumably will be affected include:

  • Systems to provide early warning on tsunamis including special coastal hazards affecting Haiti.
  • The study of earthquake threats in the Eastern Mediterranean, including Turkey, which was hit by a major deadly quake last weekend.
  • Literacy training throughout the world.
  • Vocational schools in Afghanistan.
  • General support for World Heritage sites, including the Borobudur Buddhist Temple in Indonesia.
  • Programs to study and preserve the health of the world’s oceans … And the list goes on.

A senior U.S. official says Washington has mounted a massive diplomatic effort to try to get friendly countries to put pressure on the Palestinians not to move forward with a vote. This official says there is widespread international dismay at the prospect of the United States being forced to pull out of an agency that does so much valuable work around the world.

“Within a few short months, without discussion at the White House or debate in Congress, the U.S. could find itself shut out of a great many international decisions that have a direct impact on American jobs, lives, safety and security,” former U.S. Senator Timothy Wirth, now President of the United Nations Foundation, wrote in the Los Angeles Times this week.

“The Obama administration and U.S. allies are scrambling to put together a diplomatic solution, at least in the short term. But in the long run, Congress must also take a fresh look at a law that could literally force the U.S. off the international stage,” Wirth wrote.

So far, the Palestinians have refused to step down despite the harm that their membership will cause to many nations entirely unconnected with the conflict in the Middle East. Sources close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas say he is desperate to show his people some tangible success following last week’s prisoner exchange with Israel which boosted the prestige of his Hamas rivals at his expense.

Sadly, a majority of the agency’s 193 member states, whatever their private views, are unwilling to go against the Palestinian bid should it come to a vote. No one wants to vote publicly against a Palestinian state, which these countries are on record as supporting. Quite a few nations (mostly European) probably will abstain but abstentions don’t count — only yes and no votes are counted. The Palestinians would need a two thirds majority of those present and voting to win membership, and there are enough Islamic and “non-aligned” states to deliver that majority.

This is one of those situations where everyone will lose – and yet no one seems to have the will to avert disaster.

In a letter to the Washington Post UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova wrote:

UNESCO supports many causes in line with U.S. security interests. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we are helping governments and communities prepare for life after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces. We are bolstering the literacy of the Afghan National Police and are leading the country’s largest education program, reaching some 600,000 learners in 18 provinces. We work with the United States to advance democratic freedoms. Mandated to promote freedom of expression, UNESCO stands up for every journalist attacked or killed across the world. In Tunisia and Egypt, we are leading education reform and training journalists. We target the causes of violent extremism by training teachers in human rights and Holocaust remembrance.

This would not be the first time the United States withdrew from UNESCO but it would be the first non-voluntary withdrawal. Responding to a perceived anti-Western bias, the United States withheld its contributions and withdrew from the organization in 1984 and did not rejoin until 2003 when it reached the conclusion that the organization was working positively to address important issues.

Why are the Palestinians so anxious to join UNESCO? Apart from their perception that such international acceptance will boost their claim for statehood, they can use the membership in all kinds of ways to cause problems for Israel. By adhering to the World Heritage Convention, to give one example, they could seek to have Bethlehem declared a Palestinian heritage site along borders that they would define. Other sites that could be so defined include the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and Joseph’s Tomb near Nablus, which was looted and razed by Palestinians in 2000 shortly after Israel handed over control of the site to the Palestinian Authority.

UNESCO would be the start of such processes. The Palestinians will almost certainly go from agency to agency seeking membership – the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, the International Criminal Court and even the International Atomic Energy Agency. The latter one truly represents the nightmare scenario for Washington, which could conceivably find itself effectively forced by the same legislation to pull out of the very agency that is taking the lead in monitoring Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons program.

The Palestinian statehood issue has now gone way beyond the realm of public relations. It literally threatens U.S. engagement in the world through the United Nations. Millions will suffer – in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.

If this happens, everyone should know who is responsible for it. The Palestinian President could choose not to proceed to a vote right now and that would avert the issue. If he decides to go forward, he does so knowing the consequences.

Alan Elsner is Executive Director for the Americas of The Israel Project, a privately-funded educational group based in Washington DC.

Photo: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) gestures during a meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council in the West Bank city of Ramallah October 26, 2011. The Palestinians will seek a vote on their bid for full membership of UNESCO next week, Foreign Minister Riyal al-Malki said on Wednesday, despite what he called U.S. threats to pull funding from the U.N. cultural agency. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

6 comments

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Or, maybe the US shouldn’t be supporting such immoral action by the Israeli government and the Israeli people who have elected all these right-wingers to power. The Israelis are not serious about peace, the Palestinians are and the only way peace is going to be achieved is through the UN. They have a right to go through the UN as well.

Posted by koryds2008 | Report as abusive

What is evident here is the self-inflicted wound of the idiotic 15 year old legislation. What business does the US congress have in legislating cutting funds to UNESCO if it accepts Palestinian membership?

Posted by USPatriot2 | Report as abusive

How can Elsner lay the blame at the feet of the Palestinians when it was an act of U.S. Congress that requires funding withdrawal if a vote is taken in favor of Palestinian membership? The fault lies with Congress, not the Palestinians. The solution is to rescind the mandate and at least abstain from any vote on Palestinian membership in the UN and/or affiliated agencies and organizations.

Phyllisofficial is the perfect example of the utterly ignorant and ugly American.

Posted by dewalt | Report as abusive

For once, Congress got it right. There is no way we should be funding the programs of those who hate us enough to thwart our efforts to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians would never abide by any peace agreement even if one was made, but they should not be allowed a back-door approach to entry into the UN as a sovereign nation unless they conform to the requirements of that status. Allowing such admission takes away the leverage needed to bring them to the peace table with serious intentions. Israel has made every effort to secure peace, and the Palestinians have done nothing but murder innocent people with their rocket and bomb attacks. As for the programs funded through UNESCO, we can fund those directly if we so desire, and that would probably be a more effective method anyway. Why do we need a UN agency to siphon off a large percentage of the funds in the process and likely give the rest of it to our enemies?

Posted by VHank | Report as abusive

On the one hand you have Hamas, which openly calls for a war of genocide against all Jews.

On the other hand there is Fatah, in control of the Palestinian Authority attempting cultural genocide with the aid of UNESCO. They are attempting to destroy any Jewish connection with the land. They destroy Jewish artifacts found on the Temple Mount. They sacked the Tomb of Joseph. Just wait until they start claiming Christian sites. What would the world do when the Church of the Nativity is declared a mosque? They already ousted the majority of Christians from Bethlehem. Just wait until UNESCA backs the PA claim on Christian sites.

Peace is certainly not on the Palestinian agenda. They were offered negotiations without preconditions in which all issues would be discussed. The answer was no. Before that they were offered almost everything they seek now, but the answer was no.

Posted by Me123 | Report as abusive

[...] The UNESCO meltdown [...]

[...] The UNESCO meltdown [...]

[...] The UNESCO meltdown [...]

[...] The UNESCO meltdown [...]

[...] The UNESCO meltdown [...]

Is it not the time for the Palestinian people to enjoy such a membership? Who’s been the manufacture of the sophisticated High-Tech and mass destruction weapons in the Middle East and the world and who used it first? It is funny when you talk about peace while producing deadly weapons… Congratulations to all Palestinian people and Long Life Palestine.

Posted by jkhouri | Report as abusive