In a historic vote, UNESCO on Monday granted full membership to Palestine which, until now, enjoyed only observer status at the U.N. agency for education, science and culture.
The demand for full membership was made by the Palestinian Authority and won the approval of 107 member states with 14 votes against and 52 abstentions at the organisation's General Conference. A 185 of UNESCO's 194 member states were eligible to vote.
There were celebrations in the Palestinian Occupied Territories and to a smaller extent in Gaza as news of the vote spread. Full membership of UNESCO is a small but significant step forward for the Palestinians in their attempts to gain international recognition and statehood. The vote took place with the backdrop of increased Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Despite desperate lobbying efforts, the U.S. failed to obtain a rejection of the Palestinian application for membership. Israel, too, had engaged in a media blitz against the Palestinian move and the Israeli delegate, Nimrod Barkan, on Monday described the vote as “a tragedy and a great disservice to international law”. Mr. Barkan said: “UNESCO deals in science, not science fiction. They forced on UNESCO a political subject outside its competence and brought about a drastic cut in contributions to the organisation.”
The U.S. representative to UNESCO, David Killion, called the vote “premature”, saying it would “complicate” American efforts to support the agency.
The U.S. and Israel are scheduled to withdraw their funding for UNESCO, which will result in a budget shortfall of 22 per cent. U.S. law prohibits Washington from funding any U.N.-affiliated body that accepts Palestinian membership.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova warned the U.S. against “disengagement” from the organisation, arguing that it supported “core U.S. interests” in a number of key countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq.
The U.S., which attempted to put pressure on its allies and several smaller states, voted against, as did Canada, Germany, The Netherlands, Australia and the Czech Republic. At 52, the number of abstentions was surprisingly high and included many island nations in the Pacific and the Caribbean as well as major players like Britain and Italy.
India, as Chair of the “Group of 77 and China” within UNESCO, played a “crucial, contributory yet constructive role in response to a legitimate demand on the part of the Palestinian people”, Vinay Sheel Oberoi, India's Permanent Representative to UNESO, told The Hindu just minutes after the vote at the organisation's headquarters in Paris.
Keeping Mahatma Gandhi's maxim in mind, that in true victory you do not revel in someone else's defeat, the Palestinian delegation did not gloat over its victory which was greeted with tremendous applause.
European nations such as France, Ireland, Austria and Norway which broke with tradition to vote for the Palestinians were also strongly applauded. France had abstained in an earlier vote in UNESCO's Executive Board.
Palestinian officials say they will call on UNESCO to recognise key monuments in the occupied Palestinian territories as world heritage sites. These include the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over the place where Jesus is believed to have been born.
In Ramallah, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki, had said on Sunday: “If we win with a large majority, our success will give our efforts to obtain U.N. recognition added momentum.”
Asked if member states were aware that such a vote could result in the loss of over one-fifth of UNESCO's funding, one delegate who wished to remain unnamed told The Hindu: “There is a feeling that UNESCO should return to its original function, that of a crucible of ideas. Ideas matter, not money. And in any case 70 per cent of UNESCO's budget goes towards staff salaries. And over 70 per cent of that staff comes from the developed world. So this could be a blessing in disguise, forcing the organisation to rethink its role in the U.N. system, not as a funding agency or for projects but as an ideas bank.”