Palestine was granted membership at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) General Conference in a 107-14 vote at the end of October. This is the first time that Palestine has been granted membership of any United Nations organization. The United States, Canada and Israel are among fourteen countries that voted against the admission of Palestine, and each has come out with actions against UNESCO and Palestine to express their unhappiness with the decision. This recognition will allow Palestine to request world heritage site designation foras-yet-unprotected cultural sites.
The United States, complying with a law created in 1990 which disallows US support of any agency which supports Palestine, will not be making its promised payment of $60 million this year.Their refusal to support pro-Palestine agencies will continue until an Israel-Palestine peace agreement is reached.Israel will still receive US support. Canada will stop making “voluntary payments” to UNESCO, says Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.This will reduce Canadian spending on UNESCO by an estimated $1.3 million annually. Israel has also frozen their funding but not pulled it entirely. Many countries have spoken out against Israel for its plans to punish Palestine by building 2000 new settler homes and refusing to transfer the monthly $100 million it has collected in taxes from its own people for Palestinians.It is argued that by failing to provide the monthly installment Israel is limiting Palestine’s security and ability to protect itself and its people, as this money is normally used to pay government workers.
In an interview with Arthur Dr. Gavin Fridell, said that withdrawing funding “is a terrible decision for Canada and the US.” He added that the “US and Canada just unilaterally withdraw their money from UNESCO because they are so frustrated that the UN would vote against their wishes.What’s the point of having this if powerhouses just withdraw their money?” When asked about how this decision affects the UN as a whole, Fridell said, “I think it really exposes the UN.It really shows that the UN is not in any way an authentic global organization.” Fridell mentioned that UN head Ban-Ki-Moon “suggested that Palestinian membership of UN agencies is ‘not beneficial.’He is trying to maneuver between sides saying that UN General Assembly supports the vote but every time they get on agencies the US and Canada withdraw their money.”
With the understanding that the UN is in a tough position between its powerhouses and its majority, Fridell said that for “the US and Canada, the UN is like a tool for them, a game to them.It really exposes how our Government and the US government see the UN.” He continued,“In some ways the Palestinians should get on every organization they can now to expose Canada and the US.Until the day comes that the UN has its own independent source of income, it will never be a truly meaningful global organization.They will always have to toe the line to powerful countries.”
Amid the retaliations to the decision, UNESCO produced a press release which points out that in order for a group or state which is not a member of the UN to become a member of a UN organization (such as UNESCO), a recommendation from the organization’s Executive Board and a two-thirds majority vote are required.In other words, support for this decision was strong and existed in the Executive Board as well as the General Assembly. UNESCO also said in their statement that Palestine, like all members, must sign and ratify the UN Constitution before it becomes an active member.As the United Nations Constitution pivots on concepts of peace and the pursuit of peace, the application for membership and potential signing and ratifying of the constitution suggests a viable step in the right direction.
The question of whether or not this is a step in the right direction was a primary concern in Arthur’s interview with Dr. Feyzi Baban, a Trent Professor whose courses this year include “Global Governance and Social Justice” as well as “Government & Politics in Middle East.” When asked if he felt that Palestine’s application to the United Nations indicated a desire for peace and assistance in attaining that peace, Dr. Baban told Arthur, “I think this is a certain change of strategy on the part of Palestinians.I think part of the reason they’re striving for UN membership is to incorporate international community in negotiations.”
In regards to whether UNESCO membership would help Palestine’s application to other UN agencies or the United Nations as a whole, Baban pointed out that “UNESCO membership is not going to help with the security council because the US already indicated that they will veto recognition of Palestine as a state…However this will have impact on other agencies such as the International Labour Organization and World Health Organizations, many of those organizations do not require recognition as a state for membership.”Baban said that the “significance of UNESCO’s decision is that it puts pressure on the US – it further isolates the US and Israel with respect to their position on Palestine.”
Arthur asked Baban whether he anticipated positive or negative outcomes in terms of life in the Middle East with Palestine seeing this small success in diplomatic relations.He said, “This is only a small part of what’s going on but I think in my personal assessment that more involvement of the UN is not a bad thing.It’s a good thing.In the last 30 years the relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians haven’t been progressing.Obviously something has to change, perhaps involvement of the UN and international community is a good avenue.” Finally it came down to if Dr. Baban felt that things were moving in the right direction.He said that “…it’s a very fragmented situation, not a conducive situation to peace.Perhaps there is need for a larger international community to take part within this process.”
No decision is without consequences. This has been made clear by the United States, Canada and Israel’s reactions in the wake of UNESCO’s decision. The fact remains however, that powerful as those consequences were, perhaps what’s more powerful is the disconcerting realization that the United Nations is struggling to remain credible while catering to the all-powerful security council.