Which way will UNESCO jump in the latest spat with its economic taskmistress, the USA? Last time the score was USA (UK and Singapore) 1 – UNESCO nil. This time the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.
Palestine has become a full member of UNESCO, the UN cultural and educational agency, in a move that political gainsayers threaten could harm Middle East peace efforts. US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, labelled UNESCO’s even considering the idea as “inexplicable”, saying discussion of Palestinian membership of international organisations could not replace negotiations with Israel as a fast track towards independence. Who said it could?
Predictably, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, described the vote as a “tragedy”, insultingly adding that “UNESCO deals in science, not science fiction.” He blamed Palestine for forcing on UNESCO “a political subject out of its competence” and bringing about “a drastic cut in contributions to the organisation.” The US had threatened to withhold roughly $80m in annual funding to UNESCO if it approved Palestinian membership. The US holds a strong hand in that it provides about 22% of the organization’s funding.
Palestinian officials are still seeking full membership of the United Nations, but that effort is being stymied by pro-Israel lobbyists and the US has said it will veto membership unless there is a peace deal with Israel. Fortunately, this has not deterred the Palestinians from separately seeking membership of UNESCO and other UN bodies.
This is not the first time the US has used economic pressure to cajole UNESCO into toeing the line. In 1977 UNESCO established the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems under the presidency of Irish statesman Seán MacBride. It was serious business. In the course of its work, members of the Commission participated in numerous conferences, meetings, seminars, discussion groups, and reviewed countless documents, codes of ethics and papers on specific aspects of communication. The outcome, published in 1980, was Many Voices, One World: Communication and Society Today and Tomorrow, whose slogan was “Towards a new more just and more efficient world information and communication order.” Political attacks on what became known as NWICO began almost immediately.
By 1984, the controversy over the call for a NWICO had escalated into outright conflict between its supporters (including most countries from the South) and the US government and its Western allies. After an intensive campaign of by a coalition of US-led forces, including media, governments and private sector interest groups, the USA, UK and Singapore withdrew their financial support for UNESCO. The USA only renewed its membership in 2002 when then President George W. Bush unblushingly announced, “As a symbol of our commitment to human dignity, the United States will return to UNESCO. This organization has been reformed and America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights, tolerance, and learning.”
Fortunately, the vote on Monday 31 October was definitive: membership formally takes effect when Palestine signs UNESCO’s founding charter (1945), which promises to counter “denial of the democratic principles of the dignity, equality and mutual respect” of all people as well as to promote “the education of humanity for justice and liberty and peace.” Words that will ring hollow if UNESCO buckles once again to bullyboy tactics.