07 October 2011

UNESCO and the Palestinian Membership

UNESCO is one of the most important specialized UN agencies.
Its stated purpose is to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science, and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and the human rights along with fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the UN Charter. 
These are lofty goals and very important portfolios. Unfortunately, this specialized agency with a lot of potential is not really an independent institution as its activities are closely controlled and framed by the member states.

Partly because of that and partly because of the aimless management of a series lackluster Director Generals, it gradually faded into the background and by now it is an invisible agency that is routinely confused with UNICEF.

The current Director General, Irina Bokova is a very dynamic and capable person and she has been working tirelessly to put the agency back on the map. Unlike any other UN agencies, she has made gender equality the cornerstone of her mandate and has been working to transform UNESCO's work in education, science and culture by highlighting previously ignored areas of concern such as the secondary education of girls. But her efforts are generally thwarted (if not gently sabotaged) by the very vocal and dominant member states.

And they are well placed to be able to do that.

You see, UNESCO has three constitutional organs. One is the Secretariat headed by the DG, the second is the General Conference where all 190-plus members of UNESCO sit and the third is the Executive Board, which is composed of 58 member states chosen by the General Conference. They meet twice a year to examine the work of the organization and to decide on its budget.

The Board and the General Conference can modify, redirect and stop any UNESCO policy and activity. They can impose their vision upon the organization.

In that vein, these 58 ambassadors who make up the Executive Board met two days ago and voted to give Palestine full member status (more accurately, recommended to the General Conference such membership).

This is a pointless PR stunt on the part of the member states but the media reported it as UNESCO's board members making that decision, thereby giving the impression that UNESCO Secretariat and the DG has an in-house board (like that of a corporation) and that board made that decision. It was 54 member states that did that (40 voted in favor and 14 abstained).

The problem is that it is not the member states that will pay for the consequences of that vote but the organization itself. If you have been reading this blog, you know that my working hypothesis is that the US has a grand plan to stabilize the Middle East and part of that plan is to implement the two state solution. Along the way they need to pacify Likud and its partners (such as AIPAC domestically and Yisrail Beiteinu in Israel) by reacting strongly to symbolic pro-Palestinian gestures.

One such reaction could simply mean the end of UNESCO.
Kay Granger, chairwoman of the House subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, said U.S. funding for UNESCO could be cut if full membership was granted.
"Since April, I have made it clear to the Palestinian leadership that I would not support sending U.S. taxpayer money to the Palestinians if they sought statehood at the United Nations," Granger said in a statement.
"Making a move in another U.N. agency will not only jeopardize our relationship with the Palestinians, it will jeopardize our contributions to the United Nations," said Granger, who recently held up some $200 million of aid for Palestinians.
Obviously Granger is not part of my hypothesis, as she is a conservative congresswoman from Texas supporting AIPAC and Likud. She would have done so regardless.

But the point remains that, given their current chess game (and the upcoming election), the administration would be unable to even argue against such a vote (let alone stop it) and UNESCO could lose 22 percent of its funding just so that some member states could feel smug about rubbing Israel's nose in it.

I suggested a week ago that UN granting Palestinians statehood will mean very little. That is because of this:

There is no viable Palestinian state right now. A contiguous space needs to be negotiated. And right now is the best time to do so because of the dynamics created by the so-called Arab Spring.

If UN membership is meaningless symbolic victory, acquiring membership to a specialized UN agency is just an empty PR stunt. It will do nothing for Palestinian statehood and it could simply lead the US to leave the organization as they did under Reagan.

So, I would be amused with such a pointless move if it didn't put the organization in jeopardy. I would support it if it furthered the likelihood of Palestinian statehood.

But destroying UNESCO just to pull a stunt does not sit well with me.

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