Despite a near-100% certainty that U.S. funding [representing 22% of the agency’s budget] will be cut, UNESCO member states voted this afternoon in Paris to admit the State of Palestine into full membership of the UN’s Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization.
UPDATE: Within hours, the U.S. State Department announced that a $60 million payment due to UNESCO in November will be withheld because of today’s decision to give Palestine full membership in the UN agency.
The vote was 107 member states in favor, 14 against, and [either 49 or 52?] countries either abstaining or absent.
UN SG BAN Ki-Moon expressed his concern in recent days about the possible funding cuts.
But, principles prevailed.
One of the most important of these principles is the right to self-determination.
France — which is UNESCO’s host country — reportedly voted in favor of full membership for the State of Palestine in UNESCO. So did Russia + China.
Al-Jazeera reports on its website that “UNESCO’s vote will almost certainly trigger a US law, passed in 1990, which bars the US from funding any United Nations agency ‘which accords the Palestine Liberation Organisation the same standing as member states’. The US provides about $80 million per year, or 22 per cent of the agency’s total budget. The president can often override such laws with a so-called ‘national security waiver’; these waivers allow the PLO to maintain a mission in Washington, for example, despite a 1987 law barring it. But the 1990 law on UN funding, and a similar measure passed in 1994, do not provide the option of a waiver”.
The same Al-Jazeera story called the move “symbolic” — but also quoted analyst Mouin Rabbani as saying “What they’re doing is developing leverage over the Americans, the Europeans, the Israelis, so these parties begin to take them more seriously “… which is much more than symbolic.
Al-Jazeera also reported that “The European Union tried to stop the PLO bid by offering them limited membership on UNESCO’s executive committee, and funds to renovate the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus”.
This Al-Jazeera report is posted here.
UNESCO’s Media Services says here that “For its membership to take effect, Palestine must sign and ratify UNESCO’s Constitution which is open for signature in the archives of the Government of the United Kingdom in London. Palestine’s entry will bring the number of UNESCO’s Member States to 195”.
A month ago, South Sudan became UNESCO’s 194th member state… but that was utterly uncontroversial. UNESCO’s Media Services reported here that “On 14 July 2011, the UN General Assembly voted by acclamation [i.e. – it was uncontested, and unanimous] to admit the Republic of South Sudan as a Member State”.
Reuters reported that that “The United States, Canada and Germany voted against Palestinian membership. Brazil, Russia, China, India, South Africa and France voted in favor [n.b. – all of these 6 are currently on the UN Security Council, and 3 are among the UNSC’s 5 Permanent members]. Britain abstained”.
Later reports indicated that Japan also abstained.
This Reuters report added that said that this decision will boost Palestine’s “UN bid” — the application made by PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas on 23 September to apply for full UN membership of the State of Palestine, which is now in consideration by a Committee of UN Security Council members and is expected to come up for a vote later this month [some time after the 11th, according to diplomats in New York].
The French service of the Russian RiaNovosti agency has now named 7 of the 4 states who voted against full Palestinian membership: “Quatorze pays, dont la Suède, la République tchèque, l’Allemagne, l’Australie, le Canada, les Etats-Unis et Israël, se sont opposés à cette accession“. [Sweden, the Czech Republic, Germany, Australia, Canada, US, and Israel]. This is posted here.
UPDATE: Dima Khatib, AP’s Latin American correspondent, has Tweeted [@Dima_Khatib] the full list of the 14 votes against Palestine: Australia, Canada, Czech Rep, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, Holland, Palau, Panama, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Sweden, US, Vanuatu.
The English Service of RiaNovosti reported here that “UNESCO delegates met the decision with a standing ovation”.
Mondoweiss picked up a CNN report that there was “laughter in the room” when the negative votes were cast at the UNESCO General Conference today — but it doesn’t mean that anybody was happy…it’s more a bitter recognition of what was inevitable.
UPDATE: U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in Washington today that “Today’s vote by the member states of UNESCO to admit Palestine as a member is regrettable, premature, and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in the Middle East. The United State remains steadfast in its support for the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state, but such a state can only be realized through direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. The United States also remains strongly committed to robust multilateral engagement across the UN system. However, Palestinian membership as a state in UNESCO triggers longstanding legislative restrictions which will compel the United States to refrain from making contributions to UNESCO. U.S. engagement with UNESCO serves a wide range of our national interests on education, science, culture, and communications issues. The United States will maintain its membership in and commitment to UNESCO and we will consult with Congress to ensure that U.S. interests and influence are preserved”.
Watch this Reuters video excerpt here to see Ms. Nuland is grilled by AP correspondent Matthew Lee, who wants to know exactly “how admitting Palestine into UNESCO undermines the peace process — other than by upsetting Israel”… Basically, Nuland’s answer is: “The concern is that it creates tensions when all of us should be concerting our efforts to get the parties back to the table”.
Israel’s delegate at the UNESCO meeting called the vote “tragic”, and Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for punishment of the Palestinians — literally, for “collecting a price”… Lieberman reportedly suggested that “toppling the Hamas regime in Gaza” might be one suitable retaliation…
An official reaction published here by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “Israel rejects the decision of the General Assembly of UNESCO of the 31st October accepting Palestine as a member state of the organization. This is a unilateral Palestinian maneuver which will bring no change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement. This decision will not turn the Palestinian Authority into an actual state yet places unnecessary burdens on the route to renewing negotiations … The Palestinian move at UNESCO, as with similar such steps with other UN bodies, is tantamount to a rejection of the international community’s efforts to advance the peace process. Israel thanks those countries which displayed a sense of responsibility and opposed this decision in the UNESCO General Assembly. It is disappointing that the European Union, which is working to renew the direct negotiations and opposes the Palestinian move, could not reach a unified position to prevent this decision. Following the decision to accept Palestine as a regular member of UNESCO, the State of Israel will consider its further steps and ongoing cooperation with the organization”.
If today’s UNESCO vote is any indication of what will happen in the UN Security Council, 2 of the UNSC’s Permanent Members are likely to vote in favor [Russia + China], France and the UK will likely both abstain, and the U.S. will veto — if the Palestinian request otherwise will get at least the 9 votes needed to pass [otherwise, the U.S. could abstain as well].
Germany will vote against [maybe even if the EU adopts a common position to abstain…].
Colombia, which has been thought to be inclined to voting NO in the UNSC, today abstained will do also.
Portugal will probably abstain [if the EU can adopt a common position].
Six of the current ten  non-permanent members of the UNSC — South Africa, Brazil, Lebanon, Nigeria and Gabon — reportedly also support Palestine’s “UN bid” [barring any last-minute waivering]. Still, with the votes of Permanent members Russia and China, that brings the tally only up to 8 votes in favor, one vote short of the minimum 9 votes needed to pass…
The Voice of American reported later that “Bosnian officials said [also on Monday] the country’s tripartite presidency could not agree on whether to support the Palestinian bid for full UN membership, forcing its likely abstention from a key Security Council vote on Palestinian statehood. Palestinian officials have said they already have eight of the required nine votes for a majority on the council and were counting heavily on Bosnia-Herzegovina to give them the ninth”. This is posted here.
If this situation is maintained, the U.S. will not need to cast a veto… and the Palestinian request will be let down more gently than if there would be a veto…
But, even if the Palestinian “UN bid” does not succeed in the UNSC this time, and the Palestinians are told to come back later, they will still have a good chance of upgrading their status in the UN General Assembly a step — from observer organization to observer, but non-member, state.
And, in the meanwhile, Palestine will now soon have the status of being a full member of UNESCO…