Palestine becomes Unesco member


Unesco today stood defiant in the face of threats to its funding by awarding Palestine full membership of the body in a largely symbolic result hailed by the Palestinians as a crucial victory as they vie for full UN membership.

There were loud cheers as the voting results came in: 107 in favour, 14 against and 52 abstentions. The vote would, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told delegates in Paris after the result, "erase a tiny part of the injustice done to the Palestinian people."

But it was a risky gambit that looks like having harsh consequences for the UN’s educational, scientific and cultural body, which now faces losing at least 22 per cent – or $70m– of its funding from the United States, which is obliged by a two decades-old law to withdraw support from any body that grants the Palestine Liberation Organisation the standing of a state.

The vote would, said David Killion, US ambassador to Unesco, "complicate" Washington’s efforts to support the body, but insisted that the US remained "deeply committed" to the institution and would seek alternative ways to fund it.

Israel, which voted against the motion, accused the Palestinians of taking a counter-productive step that will change nothing on the ground, while moving a peace agreement further out of reach.

"Unesco deals in science, not science fiction," said Nimrod Barkan, Israel's ambassador to Unesco. "They forced on Unesco a political subject out of its competence. They have forced a drastic cut in contributions to the organisation."

But the Palestinians viewed the move as a measure of international support and a moral victory for their campaign to internationalise the conflict amid a prevailing domestic view that peace negotiations have achieved little or nothing for the Palestinians in nearly 20 years of talks.

Israel and the Americans have insisted that the only way to achieve an independent state is through face-to-face negotiations with Israel, and they have both lobbied vigorously against a parallel Palestinian effort to seek full membership of the UN, a bid that is almost certainly doomed in light of Washington's insistence that it will veto the move.

But today’s vote, seen by some as a trial run for the real thing, faced no such obstacles. The Palestinian bid had stirred powerful emotions, and it was largely thanks to the Arab states that the vote went ahead as scheduled despite US and European efforts to delay it. One delegate cried “Long Live Palestine!” in French after the result was announced.

Besides Israel, the US, Canada and Germany all voted against, while Britain and Japan abstained. France, Russia and China voted yes.

The full implications of the US threat to halt funding remain unclear. Unesco, which protects world heritage sites and promotes literacy programmes, has a projected two-year budget of $643m for 2010-2011. If the US contribution for this period is withheld – the US normally pays towards the end of the two-year period - this would force almost immediate cutbacks.

But Unesco, sometimes accused of taking an anti-Israel stance, has survived without US funding in the past. The US withdrew from the body under President Ronald Reagan in 1984 over what it described as “growing disparity between US foreign policy and Unesco goals” only to rejoin two decades later under President George W Bush.