Thursday, October 06, 2011

Controversy over UNESCO possible recognition of Palestine state

Map Source:

The Executive Board of UNESCO voted today on a recommendation to admit Palestine to the Organization. From the 58 member-states on the Board, the recommendation was passed by a vote of 40 in favor to four against, with 14 abstentions. Palestine's request for membership will now be considered at the next session of the General Conference (October 26-November 10) where a two-thirds majority vote is required for membership to be granted. Decisions for admission are taken by the General Conference and the Executive Board which are UNESCO's governing bodies.

According to The New York Times:
Fourteen delegations abstained, including those from Belgium, France, Italy and Spain, while the American delegation joined Germany, Latvia and Romania in opposing the measure. (Israel does not presently sit on the executive board, where membership rotates.) Russia joined African and Arab states, among others, in support.
The United States government has opposed according Palestine full national status in UN agencies at this time on the basis that there should first be a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, and that premature recognition of Palestine would make getting the peace process under way more difficult. In general, the United States government has supported a two state solution.

The vote is especially important as the United Nations is also considering accepting Palestine as a member nation, and were a specialized agency such as UNESCO to recognize the Palestinians as a member state it might set a precedent for the vote in the UN. 

The New York Times reports that "Palestinians Win a Vote On Bid to Join Unesco". It reports further:
(F)ull membership in Unesco could mean a legally mandated cutoff of all contributions from the United States, both dues and voluntary. 
Existing United States legislation appears to mandate the cutoff of money to the United Nations or any of its agencies if they grant “full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood,” and more legislation along the same lines has been introduced. The United States contributes 22 percent of Unesco’s budget...... 
The State Department’s spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said that lawyers were busily reviewing how and when the Palestinian membership would affect the American financing. She said the administration would try to block a vote of the full Unesco membership even as it encourages a resumption of talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The fiscal year for the U.S. Government started October 1, 2011 so presumably U.S. funding from the last fiscal year (that ended September 30th) has already been transferred to UNESCO. Were the action of the General Conference to trigger a withholding of U.S. contributions to UNESCO, that would presumably occur in 2012 or thereafter. Member states have a responsibility to pay their assessed contributions to the Organization, but there have been many occasions in which a country is in arrears on those contributions, so the United States might withhold payment to UNESCO for a period of time and then pay the amount in arrears. Indeed, the Congress has in the past withheld contributions to the United Nations as means of pressuring the UN to change management or policy, later paying the arrears.

When the decision was made by the United States Government in the Reagan administration to withdraw from UNESCO, the Government provided the required one year notice of withdrawal, paying its assessed contributions for the period the United States remained a member state. The withdrawal, combined with that of the United Kingdom and Singapore, created a major financial crisis for UNESCO.

The return of the United States to UNESCO in 2004 did not result in a massive immediate increase in its budget, but rather a reduction in the assessed contributions of the other member states. Still, withholding 22 percent of the budget would cause serious financial problems for the organization. Were the United States again to withdraw from UNESCO the crisis would be greater and longer lasting. Were other major donors to also withhold contributions and/or withdraw, the result might be fatal to the Organization.

As in other United Nations system forums, the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab controversy has come up regularly at UNESCO Executive Board and General Conference meetings. Often those debates have led to useful conclusions, and to the best of my knowledge, none led to crises in UNESCO governance.

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