Fact sheet on the PLO’s bid for UNESCO & Celebrations on Vote – video

IMEU, Oct 31, 2011


As part of their statehood bid at the United Nations the Palestine Liberation Organization applied for Palestine to be admitted as a member state to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). On October 5, the Executive Board of UNESCO agreed to forward the request to the full body. On October 31, during the organization’s 36th General Conference, UNESCO approved full Palestinian membership by a vote of 107 to 14 with 52 abstentions.

Palestine’s admission to UNESCO carries with it a variety of implications, including increasing the Palestinians’ ability to protect their cultural heritage and, due to US Congressional legislation, forcing the U.S. to withdraw its membership and funding in the organization, thereby severely impeding its foreign policy efforts. Following approval of Palestine as a member state, the U.S. announced a halt to its funding of UNESCO, including a $60 million payment it was slated to make in November. This fact sheet further investigates these matters.

What is UNESCO?

Established in 1946, UNESCO’s objectives are listed as:

    • Attaining quality education for all and lifelong learning
    • Mobilizing science knowledge and policy for sustainable development
    • Addressing emerging social and ethical challenges
  • Fostering cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue and a culture of peace
  • Building inclusive knowledge societies through information and communication

Headquartered in Paris and made up of 195 member states and eight associate members, it runs numerous programs and services around the world towards the fulfillment of these objectives.

Admission as a member state to UNESCO requires a two-thirds majority vote by current members. Only “yes” and “no” votes are tabulated, abstentions are not included in the two-thirds tally.

Why does Palestine want to be part of UNESCO?

The PLO’s push for full membership to UNESCO was in part a litmus test of UN support for Palestinian claims to statehood. Becoming a UNESCO member state lends legitimacy to the Palestinian assertion that they are ready for and deserve to be recognized as a state by the international community as represented by the UN, in particular as a member state in the UN General Assembly.

UNESCO membership also means that Palestine can become a member of the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), as these bodies allow UNESCO members to become full members. It also places the Palestinians in a good position to become members of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), where admission is similarly contingent on a majority or two-thirds majority vote.

If an increasing number of UN agencies admit Palestine as a member state, it strengthens their claim to statehood, internationalizes the Israel-Palestine conflict, and opens up avenues previously closed to the Palestinians to pursue grievances related to the Israeli military occupation of their lands.

What practical effects will UNESCO membership have for the Palestinians?

Palestine’s accession to various UNESCO conventions and protocols is crucial to protecting its endangered cultural heritage:

    • Between 1967 and 1992, approximately 200,000 artifacts were illegally removed from sites across the occupied Palestinian territories according to the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MOTA).
    • Since 1995, MOTA estimates that the number of artifacts illegally removed from the occupied territories each year is approximately 120,000.
    • The illegal removal of artifacts occurs in several ways, including Israeli government-sponsored excavations; excavations carried out by private individuals or groups; the theft of artifacts by Israeli soldiers and settlers; and the theft of artifacts by Palestinians.
  • Israeli military action, illegal settlement construction and the illegal construction of Israel’s Wall have also resulted in damage to and destruction of important cultural sites in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Several UNESCO measures offer redress to the theft and damage of Palestine’s cultural patrimony. They include the:

    • 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property
      • Declares the import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property to be illicit in instances where they are contrary to the principles of the Convention or where they arise directly or indirectly from occupation of a country by a foreign power.
    • 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects 1995
      • A supplement to the 1970 Convention, it focuses on legal remedies relating to restitution or the return of stolen and/or illegally exported cultural objects.
    • 1956 Recommendation on International Principles Applicable to Archaeological Excavations
      • Regulates trade in antiques with a view to discouraging the illegal excavation and export of cultural artifacts, as well as preventing museums from exhibiting such artifacts.
    • 1974 Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation
      • The committee is responsible for promoting multilateral and bilateral cooperation and/or negotiations for the return of stolen cultural property, including as a result of colonial or foreign occupation as well as through illicit appropriation.
    • Introduces guidelines of good practice for dealers in cultural property and
      includes prohibitions on trading in artifacts when there is reasonable cause to believe that they have been stolen and/or illegally exported.

As Israel is not a party to the 1970 or 1995 conventions, those cannot be applied to Israeli theft of Palestinian artifacts. However, Israel is party to the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict with Regulations for the Execution of the Convention and the Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, both enacted in 1954 and both of which obligate Israel, as the occupying power, to prevent the theft and export of cultural artifacts from the territory it occupies and prohibits Israel from undertaking archaeological excavations in the occupied territories.

Finally, UNESCO membership enables the Palestinians to apply for World Heritage Status for historic sites in the occupied territories, such as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron and Haram al-Sharif in East Jerusalem. This designation will assist in legitimizing Palestinian claims to its own territory and offer a degree of protection to Palestinian cultural sites, however symbolic.

What are the implications of Palestine’s bid for the U.S.?

The positive vote by the UNESCO General Conference in favor of full Palestinian membership may have severe repercussions for the U.S. and its ability to engage with the UN and carry out its foreign policy goals.

According to a law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1990, the U.S. is obligated to withdraw its funding of any UN body which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the status  of a member state. A similar law passed in 1994 bars funding to a UN body which “grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.” Withdrawal of funding will likely be accompanied by a U.S. departure from the same UN agencies. Shortly after Palestine was voted in as a member state, the U.S. announced it is cutting its funding to UNESCO. The U.S. funded 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget, and the estimated withdrawal of funds is approximately $70 to $80 million per year.

United Nations Foundation President and former Senator Timothy Wirth noted some benefits of U.S. membership in UNESCO, as well as the potential ramifications of its departure, such as to the tsunami warning system coordinated by UNESCO and to the U.S.’s literacy and educational efforts in Afghanistan. If the U.S. were to withdraw from WIPO, it could not use that body to internationally coordinate intellectual property rights protections.  Likewise, if Palestine becomes a member of the IAEA, the U.S. will have to leave and no longer have a voice in that institution regarding safekeeping and countering the spread of nuclear weapons.  In a letter to the Washington Post, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova cites UNESCO’s work with the U.S. government and the U.S. private sector on human rights and educational initiatives from Tunisia and Egypt to Senegal and Tanzania, all of which will likely come to an end as the U.S. withdraws its funding from the UN organization.

Some political commentators have already gone so far as to blame the Palestinians’ pursuit of their cultural rights for forcing the US to leave UNESCO, thereby jeopardizing valuable programs in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Others note the self-sabotaging nature of the Congressional legislation.

Due to these two laws, which cannot be bypassed with an executive order or waiver, the U.S. will likely be forced to isolate itself from participating in several United Nations agencies. This will dramatically affect the ability of the U.S. to pursue policy goals on the world stage, all due to the U.S. Congress’ zealotry in seeking to prevent the Palestinians from nonviolently pursuing recognition of their rights as a people in the international arena.

Source and more at the IMEU

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