UNESCO membership for
Reports of the private conversation between Presidents Obama
and Sarkozy during their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Cannes on 3 November 2011
focussed on their unflattering remarks about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
"I cannot bear Netanyahu, he's a liar”, Sarkozy told
Obama, unaware that the microphones in their meeting room had been switched
on. "You're fed up with him, but I
have to deal with him even more often than you”, Obama replied .
Little attention was paid to other, arguably more
significant, parts of the conversation.
In these, Obama complained about Sarkozy's unexpected decision to vote
in favour of a Palestinian membership of UNESCO (the United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) a few days earlier, telling
"I didn't appreciate your way of presenting things over
the Palestinian membership of UNESCO. It weakened us. You should have consulted
us, but that is now behind us."
On 31 October 2011, Palestine
was admitted to full membership of UNESCO in the teeth of fierce opposition
from the US and Israel, but with the unexpected backing of France. Of itself, this event would have been of no
great consequence, if it wasn’t for the fact that there is legislation on the US statute book, enacted at the behest of Israel, which compels the US to halt its funding of UNESCO because of Palestine’s admission to
membership. As a result, the US could lose
its voting rights in UNESCO in two years time.
Obama said that he was worried about
the impact if the US
had to cease funding other UN bodies, such as the Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), if the
Palestinians gained membership in these.
He told Sarkozy:
"You have to pass the message along to the Palestinians
that they must stop this immediately.”
Voting in UNESCO
The 194-member General Conference of
UNESCO approved full membership for Palestine
by 107 votes to 14 with 52 abstentions. The
announcement of the result was greeted with sustained applause in the
conference hall. Palestine already had observer status at
Article II(1) of the UNESCO
constitution lays down that “states not members of the United Nations
Organization may be admitted to membership of the Organization, upon
recommendation of the Executive Board, by a two-thirds majority vote of the
General Conference” . Since Palestine
is not a full UN member, this provision applied to Palestine’s application for membership. In the event, the total number of votes cast
(excluding abstentions) was 121, so a minimum of two-thirds of 121, that is, 81
votes, was required for the admission of Palestine. The 107 votes in favour was well in excess of
the required two-thirds majority.
This was a stunning defeat for the
US and Israel, only 12 out of the other 192 members of UNESCO siding with them,
despite intense US lobbying and in the certain knowledge that the US would have
to cease funding UNESCO, if the admission was approved. On 7 October 2011, the Director-General of
UNESCO, Irina Bokova, was sent a letter signed by each member of the US House
of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations,
the body responsible for UNESCO’s US funding, saying:
“Any recognition of Palestine
as a Member State
would not only jeopardize the hope for a resumption of direct
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but would endanger the United States’
contribution to UNESCO.” 
In addition to the US and Israel,
the votes against came from Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany,
Lithuania, the Netherlands, Panama and Sweden, plus 4 small states in the South
Pacific – Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – which regularly vote with
the US and Israel in UN bodies.
The EU states split three ways, 11
voting for (Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland,
Luxembourg, Malta, Slovenia and Spain), 5 against (Czech Republic, Germany,
Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden) and 11 abstaining (Bulgaria, Denmark,
Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and UK).
A complete record of the voting can
be found on The Guardian website .
Full UN membership off for now
On 11 November 2011, the Palestinian
attempt to obtain full UN membership, for which President Abbas applied in
September, came to an end, at least for now.
It failed without a formal vote being taken in the Security Council –
and therefore the US
didn’t have to use its veto to block membership. Palestinians didn’t press the matter to a
vote because it was clear that the application wasn’t going to receive the 9
votes necessary for a resolution to be carried in the Security Council, in the
absence of a veto from a permanent member.
Only 8 Security Council members – Brazil, China,
Gabon, India, Lebanon,
Nigeria, Russia and South Africa – were prepared to
vote in favour of Palestinian membership.
Britain and France had announced that they would abstain,
along with Portugal and Bosnia. Germany and Colombia
were expected to either abstain or vote against alongside the US. The voting could have been 8:1 in favour, but
that isn’t sufficient to carry a resolution in the Security Council.
(At the beginning of 2012, 5 of the
10 non-permanent members of the Security Council – Bosnia, Brazil, Gabon,
Lebanon and Nigeria – will be replaced by 5 others just recently elected by the
General Assembly on a regional basis for a two-year term. These are Azerbaijan,
Guatemala, Morocco, Pakistan
and Togo. Only 3 of these, Azerbaijan,
Morocco and Pakistan can be relied upon to support UN
membership for Palestine,
compared with 4 of those states they replaced.
In other words, in 2012 the Security Council is likely to be less
favourable to UN membership for Palestine.)
Having failed, at least for now, to
gain full UN membership, the Palestinians are going to seek observer rights at
the UN as a “non-member state”. This merely
requires a simple majority in the General Assembly, which is certain to be
achieved. It cannot be blocked by the US. Palestinians have had observer rights at the
UN since 1974, but as a liberation organisation, not as a state. The thumping majority in the UNESCO General
Conference augurs well for the outcome on this issue in the General Assembly.
As I have said, existing US
legislation compels the US
to cease funding UNESCO, and other UN related bodies, in the event of Palestine being admitted
to full membership. This applies both to
membership dues and to other voluntary contributions, if any. And non-payment of dues may eventually lead
to the withdrawal of voting rights and a diminution of influence for the US in these
bodies, which is clearly contrary to US national interests.
Two pieces of legislation are
relevant. The first of these passed in
“No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any
other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency
thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing
as member states.” (US Public Law 101-246)
The second dating from 1994 says:
“The United States shall not make any voluntary or assessed
contribution: (1) to any affiliated organization of the United Nations which
grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not
have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood, or (2) to the
United Nations, if the United Nations grants full membership as a state in the
United Nations to any organization or group that does not have the
internationally recognized attributes of statehood, during any period in which
such membership is effective.” (US Public Law 103-236)
These laws give the President no
discretion whatsoever about ceasing funding if a UN body admits Palestine to full
membership. Usually, laws such as these allow
the President to waive provisions, if he determines that it is in the US national
interest to do so. But, the Israeli
lobby succeeded in excluding such a waiver in these instances.
Under (2) above, it looks as if the US would have to withdraw funding to the UN itself,
was admitted to full membership. Happily
for the US,
it has a veto in the Security Council – so it can prevent that.
However, it cannot veto Palestinian
applications for full membership of other UN-related bodies (about 20 in
all). In some cases, no vote is required
UNESCO membership automatically extends to the UN Industrial Development
Organization (UNIDO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and
the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Membership of others, for example, the World
Health Organisation (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), would require a vote, but there is
little doubt that the outcome would be positive for Palestine.
The US normally contributes a
significant proportion of total funding to any UN body of which it is a
member. So, if Palestine is admitted to membership, that
body’s functioning will be impaired, unless other states make up the loss. In the case of UNESCO, the proportion contributed
by the US
is around 22%. That contribution has now
been halted. After two years of
non-payment the US
will lose its voting rights in UNESCO and with that its ability to serve US
interests within the organisation.
Similar restrictions on voting rights obtain in other bodies.
Serious matter for the US
This is potentially a very serious matter
for the US. Here’s what former US senator, Tim Wirth, wrote on the
issue just after the UNESCO vote:
“With a clear majority of countries around the world
prepared to back Palestinian ambitions at the United Nations, the United States
is poised to lose its leverage over several UN bodies that advance American
interests and promote our ideals.
“The damage to Americans of a forced withdrawal would not
stop there. The first UN agency from which the United
States could be pushed out is UNESCO, which admitted Palestine as a member
today. To Americans, UNESCO is best known for designating World Heritage Sites.
It also leads global efforts to bring clean water to the poor, promotes
educational and curriculum building in the developing world, and manages a
tsunami early warning system in the Pacific, among other important tasks. This
critical work would be jeopardized if UNESCO's top funder stops paying its
“The immediate damage would not be limited to UNESCO. The
is admitted to UNESCO it will also clear the path for its entry to the World
Intellectual Property Organization. This is a lesser known UN agency that
serves American businesses and brands by setting global standards for
copyrights and adjudicating cross border patent disputes. In the last year
alone, dozens of major American companies brought cases before WIPO – the
American Automobile Association, Apple, The North Face, Costco and Facebook to
name just a few. If Palestine joins WIPO, the United States
will have to pull out, limiting its ability to steer policies in ways that
advance American economic interests and create jobs here at home.
“The damage would not stop there. The membership of UN
agencies like the International Civil Aviation Organization, International
Postal Union, and the International Telecommunications Union are also likely to
Each of these agencies performs tasks that American lawmakers probably take for
granted. Thanks to the Universal Postal Union, the Chinese will deliver a
package with American postage stamps on it and vice versa.
“Air traffic controllers in Dubai and Dulles speak the same language
because of the International Civil Aviation Organization. Alas, under the 1990s
laws, the USA will lose its
voice at those organizations once they admit Palestine. …
“Next on the list of agencies from which the USA would be
forced to withdraw is the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World
Health Organization. In recent years the IAEA has been a critical part of
American attempts to constrain the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. In 2006, the Bush
administration successfully lobbied other members of the IAEA executive board
to refer Iran's
nuclear program to the Security Council for sanctions. Should the United States stop paying membership dues to the
IAEA – which it could be forced to do under current legislation if Palestine is admitted as a member – the United States
would give up our vote on the executive board. It would literally lose a seat
at the table during the next nuclear crisis.
“The WHO works closely with the United States – particularly the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – to keep infectious diseases like
the Avian Flu from reaching our shores. If the Palestinians are admitted to the
WHO, that cooperation would have to stop under the current law.” 
No wonder Obama is worried. The US
has got itself into a fine mess – if Palestine
applies successfully to join UN related bodies (which the US is powerless to prevent), the possibility
arises of the US being
deprived of voting rights, and therefore political clout, in these bodies,
because of existing US
The legislation exists, not to serve
US interests, but because the US Congress acceded to Israeli demands. But it’s certainly not in Israel’s interests for the US influence in these bodies to be diminished,
since the US can be relied
upon to serve Israel’s
interests in these bodies at least as diligently as it serves its own interests.
Commenting on the UNESCO vote on 31 October
2011, State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, acknowledged the
difficulty in which the US
found itself, saying:
States also remains strongly committed to
robust multilateral engagement across the UN system. However, Palestinian
membership as a state in UNESCO triggers longstanding legislative restrictions
which will compel the United
States to refrain from making contributions
to UNESCO. U.S.
engagement with UNESCO serves a wide-range of our national interests on
education, science, culture, and communications issues. The United States will maintain its membership in
and commitment to UNESCO, and we will consult with Congress to ensure that U.S. interests
and influence are preserved.” 
But, will the present Congress amend
the legislation to end this farcical situation?
Remember this is the Congress that gave Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu
29 standing ovations, when he addressed a joint session in May 2011. The Senate, which is controlled by Democrats,
may be inclined to do so. But the Republican-controlled House of
Representatives is a different matter.
In election year, they are in no mood to help Obama out about anything –
even when it is manifestly in the national interests of the US to do so.
My guess is that Congress will
eventually be persuaded to modify the legislation to allow US funding of these
bodies. But it won’t be persuaded by the
Obama administration. It will be
persuaded by Israel – when
the reduction of US
influence in these bodies is detrimental to Israeli interests, it will get
Congress to change the legislation to allow US funding to be resumed. But this won’t happen until after the 2012
The State Department spokesperson,
Victoria Nuland, was given a rough ride in the press conference on 31 October
2011, especially by Matt Lee of the Associated Press. It can be watched at .
opposition to the Palestinian membership of UNESCO is the latest instance of
the US subordinating its
interests to the wishes of Israel,
and isolating itself internationally.
In February 2011, it was in a
minority of one on the Security Council in opposition to a resolution demanding
that Israel “completely ceases all settlement activities in the Occupied
Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem” .
In other words, the US voted against its own policy, as Susan Rice, the
US Ambassador to the United Nations, made clear at the time, saying:
“… we reject in the strongest terms
the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. … Continued settlement
activity violates Israel’s
international commitments, devastates trust between the parties and threatens
the prospects for peace.” 
Yet she cast
vote against, because, she said:
“…this draft resolution risks hardening the positions of
both sides. It could encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations …”
The real reason for the US voting against was that Israel wanted the US to vote against, so it did. Likewise, the US
voted against Palestine’s admission to UNESCO
because that’s what Israel
wanted. And the US excuse for doing so was equally vacuous –
Victoria Nuland told the press that the UNESCO vote “undermines our shared goal
of a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in the Middle
East” and “could exacerbate the environment which we’re trying to
work through so that the parties will get back to the table”.
As Matt Lee said, “the only thing it
does is it upsets Israel”,
but “it changes nothing on the ground, unlike say, construction of settlements”.
The UN Secretary General, Ban
Ki-Moon, expressed concern about the cuts in funding to UN related bodies, as a
consequence of Palestine
being admitted to membership. His
solution is that Palestine
cease applying for full membership of these bodies. Such behaviour “is not beneficial for Palestine and not
beneficial for anybody”, he said on 3 November 2011 .
This is an extraordinary position
for the UN Secretary General to adopt, given the obligation on him and his
staff in Article 100(1) of the UN Charter to “refrain from any action which
might reflect on their position as international officials responsible only to
the Organization”. He has no business
telling Palestinians what is or is not “beneficial for Palestine”.
The US legislation which has led to the
cessation of funding is a blatant attempt by the US Congress to dictate to UN
bodies which entities should or should not be admitted to membership. Ban Ki-Moon should be lecturing the US for that highhanded behaviour, and not Palestine, which has been
admitted to UNESCO, in accordance with its rules and procedures, with only 14
of its 194 members opposing.
Israel’s “price tag” measures
Israel has also cut off it annual funding
to UNESCO and announced a number of “price tag” measures against Palestinians
for daring to apply successfully for membership of UNESCO. The construction of around 2,000 homes in
Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem
is to be expedited; the payment of custom duties to the Palestinian Authority collected
on behalf of Authority, under the Paris Economic Protocols, was suspended . This revenue amounts to around $100 million a
month and is about two-thirds of the Authority’s revenue, apart from
international aid. Payment was resumed a
4 December 2011