Observer Research Foundation Mumbai

Ideas and Action for a Better India

The UNESCO Fiasco by Kshitij Neelakantan

The recent move by the Palestinian Authority to apply for full membership of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) was met with resounding opposition from Israel and the USA, who contend that such unilateral attempts to gain diplomatic recognition fly in the face of the ‘multilateral peace process’. These objections notwithstanding, UNESCO members voted emphatically for the inclusion of Palestine, by 107 votes to 14, with 52 abstentions. Cue cheers from Palestine. Cue petulance from Israel and USA. These two nations, who between them account for 25% of UNESCO’s annual funding (22% from USA and 3% from Israel), promptly withdrew from their financial commitments to UNESCO.

This was certainly not unexpected, with hawkish voices in USA and Israel threatening dire consequences for both the Palestinians and any international organization with the temerity to defy their edicts. Indeed, the right-wing government of Binyamin Netanyahu is treating this as another excuse to ramp up its controversial and provocative program of settlement construction in occupied Palestinian territory. In all honesty, it is hardly a surprise that the Israeli government is using this to justify its own hawkish position, given the track record of the Netanyahu administration. Indeed, Israeli intransigence to compromise in negotiations was one of the reasons that prompted the Palestinian Authority (PA) to employ such unilateral methods. With both sides indulging in chest-beating showboating on the international stage, it fell to the US to bring both sides back to the negotiating table and temper the tone of their public pronouncements.

The drastic failure of the Obama administration in this regard has been a blow to the American policy position in this conflict. They have always maintained that any peace will have to come through a multilateral process that involves all the concerned parties, with themselves being the mediating authority. However, an ambitious policy excursion that promised so much, typified by President Obama’s landmark speech in Cairo in 2009, has spectacularly failed under the political realities that exist in the Levant today. On the one hand, Israel has taken an increasingly aggressive position on divisive issues like settlements, while on the other hand Palestinians are beset by infighting between the two governments of Hamas in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank.

All of this defies repeated attempts by the US to bring both sides to task, as it envisages under its role as the mediator-in-chief.  This position has now come under threat, and in the future may get even further diluted as regional powers like Turkey and Egypt come to play an influential role in the outcome of this conflict. Buoyed by their success at UNESCO, the PA is now considering a bid for full membership to the UN itself, which would bring it into direct opposition with the US and its all-important Veto.

Disappointingly, the American response to this situation has been marked by denial and petulance. At first unwilling to accept the legitimacy of the Palestinian bid for recognition, it has engaged on an active campaign to sabotage any such attempts. This may well be an unadvisable path to undertake for the PA, but by diametrically opposing their position USA has exposed itself to accusations of neo-imperialism, anti-democratic sentiment (given the emphatic vote count)and most crucially, as an unquestioning backer of an Israel that is being viewed as increasingly radical.

The US claims to be hamstrung by legislation passed in the 1990s, such as the 1990 order prohibiting funding for “the United Nations or any specialised agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organisation the same standing as a member state.” Needless to say, The American government has shown how it is very capable of contravening legal ‘difficulties’ when they arise on an international stage (extraordinary renditions, drone bombings and so on). So to hide behind such an argument is an insult to the intelligence of the listener. Further, these legislations were passed before the Oslo Accords, and before the USA started funding the Palestinians directly, providing substantial ground for an executive order citing ‘changed circumstances’.

Such blatant exposure of the double standards of American foreign policy has been a blow to their credibility in the Arab World and beyond. Their reaction to this loss of prestige has been almost childlike in its petulance and tokenism, like the boy who refuses to accept that he has lost in a playground dispute so he takes his ball and goes home.

Withholding money from UNESCO serves no diplomatic purpose other than a token rejection of the decision to include Palestine. All this to ‘punish’ an organization whose stated aim is “to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information.”  Spare a thought, then, for this intensely apolitical international body that will now struggle to compensate for the loss of a quarter of its budget, sacrificed at the altar of petty politics.


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This entry was posted on 11/11/2011 by in Articles, Kshitij Neelakantan.
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