U.S. Move to Block Palestine in UNESCO Doomed to Fail
UNITED NATIONS, 7 Oct
Despite a slim chance of diplomatic victory, the United States is leading a doomed, mostly Western attempt to block Palestinian membership in the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
The 193-member General Conference, UNESCO's policy-making body, is expected to ratify Palestine's membership during its weeklong session beginning Oct. 25.
The application was approved by the agency's 58-member executive board earlier in the week.
But the administration of President Barack Obama is lobbying heavily, under pressure from Israel and pro-Israeli members of Congress and senators, to stall the Palestinian membership - even threatening to cut off funds to the Paris-based U.N. agency if it recognises the political legitimacy of Palestine.
Asked Palestine's chances of clearing the U.S. political hurdle, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka's ambassador to France and permanent delegate to UNESCO, told IPS, "Here in Paris, the Palestinians feel their chances are good, because the General Conference is widely representative of the world, of global opinion - although the world's most powerful establishment will probably throw its considerable weight on the scales to prevent a decision."
Predicting that the vote will take place somewhere during the last week of October, he pointed out that a two-thirds majority is needed for approval of membership.
"It will be a high intensity, high stakes diplomatic battle which requires considerable political consciousness and mobilisation on a world scale," said Jayatilleka, a former ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has asked UNESCO to re-think its decision.
"Unfortunately, there are those who, in their enthusiasm to recognise the aspirations of the Palestinian people, are skipping over the most important step, which is determining what the (Palestinian) state will look like, what its borders are, how it will deal with the myriad issues that States must address."
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican Congresswoman from the state of Florida and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has warned that any decision to upgrade the Palestinian mission's status by UNESCO or by any other U.N. agency "will lead to a cutoff of U.S. funds to that entity."
Currently the United States pays about 22 percent of the UNESCO's regular budget of just over 300 million dollars annually.
These "assessed contributions" by member states are mandatory and based on each country's capacity to pay.
Additionally, UNESCO also has an annual 200-million-dollar budget funded by voluntary contributions from member states, including the United States, which provides less than one million dollars.
Dr. Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, told IPS the United States is already out of step with the rest of the world, and will be even more so if it goes ahead with this threat.
Such short-sighted moves, made entirely for domestic partisan reasons, he said, will gravely harm U.S. interests and influence in the U.N., in the Middle East and throughout the world.
"Outside the bubble of unreality which is American-Israeli official discourse on Palestine, no one can fathom why the policy of the United States is so at odds with its stated principles of support for the self-determination of peoples and for Palestinian statehood," Khalidi said.
Asked about the U.S. threat, Jayatilleka told IPS, "As I said during the session which passed the historic resolution, UNESCO is the ethical vanguard of the U.N. system."
UNESCO has been, is and seeks to remain the hub of education, of ideas, of culture, of ethics, of philosophy, of humanism and of higher values within the international system, he said.
"I don't think that these ideals will be compromised and I feel confident that UNESCO will continue to make a valuable contribution," he said.
Last month, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally submitted Palestine's application for full membership in the United Nations.
But the United States has threatened to veto the resolution if it comes up before the 15-member Security Council.
In such an event, it is likely that Palestine will seek enhanced observer status in the 193-member General Assembly, which requires only a simple majority.
But support for Palestine is so strong that it may end up getting an overwhelming majority - far beyond the simple majority needed.
Jayatilleka said that while addressing the General Assembly last month, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa rightly said that despite repeated references in the Assembly by many member countries on the right of the Palestinian people to a state of their own within secure borders, "we still have not been able to make it a reality."
"It is a matter for profound disappointment that this has not yet happened. There is a window of opportunity now and we must make use of it before it is too late. It is time for decisive action rather than more discussion. And this will be in the interest of the security and the wellbeing of the entire region, including Israel," the president said.
"If UNESCO admits Palestine this month," said Jayatilleka, "it will constitute precisely an example of such decisive action rather than more discussion."