Money Talks: Palestinians Drop Plans to Join Other UN Agencies After UN Chief Frets About Repercussions

November 4, 2011 - 1:32 AM
UNESCO admits Palestinians

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki, left, addresses a press conference at UNESCO on Monday, the day "Palestine" became a full member of the agency. Four days later Palestinian leaders are rethinking plans to seek membership of numerous other U.N. agencies. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

(Editor's note: Adds comment from Heritage Foundation scholar Brett Schaefer)

(CNSNews.com) – Palestinian Authority foreign minister Riyad Malki said Thursday that the P.A. will not pursue admission to additional UN agencies at this time, a reversal from an announcement earlier that it has at least 16 other U.N. bodies in its sights.

Speaking in Ramallah, Malki said the P.A. would instead focus its efforts on its bid for full U.N. recognition, an application currently under consideration by a Security Council committee.

Although he said the decision was not linked to threats from the U.S. or Israel, the shift does appear to be linked to concerns in the international community about the financial consequences for U.N. bodies that do accept “Palestine.”

Following Monday’s vote to grant it full membership of the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the U.S. announced a halt to its contributions to the agency – 22 percent of the agency’s budget, or around $80 million a year – in compliance with legislation passed in the 1990s.

Israel announced Thursday that it would end its $2 million annual contribution to UNESCO, and Canada said earlier it would no longer make voluntary contributions to the agency (worth an estimated $1.3 million a year) although it will continue to pay its assessed dues to the regular UNESCO budget.

U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon sounded the alarm on Thursday, saying in an interview that it was “not beneficial for Palestine and not beneficial for anybody” for the P.A. to lodge membership applications with other U.N. bodies, following its UNESCO achievement.

“When an organization is not properly functioning because of a lack of resources, you have to think about the millions and millions of people who are being impacted and affected,” Ban told the Associated Press on the sidelines of G20 meetings in Cannes.

Pointing to Ban’s comments and the Israeli and Canadian decisions, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, commented in a statement on the evident effectiveness of the U.S. funding halt.

“Smart withholding is working,” she said.

Heritage Foundation scholar Brett Schaefer, who specializes in international regulatory affairs, told CNSNews.com the P.A. announcement “is a direct result of the U.S. decision to withhold funding from UNESCO.”

“Leading up to the UNESCO vote and afterwards, the U.S. signaled that admitting the Palestinians would not result in a significant change in U.S. relations with UNESCO,” he said. “In fact, following the vote State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated that the U.S. ‘will maintain its membership and commitment to UNESCO,’” he said.

“Once it became clear that the U.S. actually had to withhold U.S. funding by law, regardless of the inclination of the Obama administration, the leadership and membership in other U.N. organizations took notice and told the Palestinians to back off.”

Asked whether Ban had approached the Palestinian leadership directly about the planned membership applications, U.N. spokesman Eduardo Del Buey said, “not to the best of my knowledge in the past two or three days.”

He said that Ban in his AP interview had “noted that it is the prerogative of member states to decide on membership into the international organizations – but it is also his job as head of the U.N. to ensure that the U.N. functions properly and smoothly, and is adequately financed to meet its goals and objectives.”

Nuland confirmed Thursday that the administration had over the past 24 hours communicated with the P.A. about its U.N. recognition drive and with Congress about the mandated U.N. funding cutoff.

She declined to go into details, but conceded that the diplomacy was “very much a work in progress.”

Malki’s comments in Ramallah contradicted those by the P.A.’s envoy to the U.N. in Geneva, Ibrahim Khraishi, earlier in the week. He said the Palestinians were considering applying to join 16 other U.N. bodies.

UNESCO vote on Palestine

UNESCO delegates applaud after voting to admit “Palestine” as a full member, at the agency’s General Conference in Paris on Monday Oct. 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

P.A. health minister Fathi Abu Moghli also said an application for membership in the U.N.’s World Health Organization was being prepared.

‘Intolerant regimes’

In her statement, Ros-Lehtinen also drew attention to UNESCO’s election on Wednesday of Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and “other intolerant regimes” onto the agency’s Executive Board.

She said the move “marks the second time this week that UNESCO has rewarded irresponsible and dangerous behavior.”

“Just days after admitting ‘Palestine’ and advancing the Palestinian leadership’s anti-Israel, anti-peace scheme, UNESCO has once again welcomed the Cuban dictatorship and other pariah states with open arms, disregarding their human rights violations,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

“Cuba and Saudi Arabia will keep working with other repressive regimes on the executive board such as China, Syria, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Vietnam to advance an anti-American, anti-Israel agenda.”

As reported earlier, when UNESCO’s General Conference voted by secret ballot to fill 31 seats on the Executive Board, more countries wanted Cuba to win a seat than the United States. Cuba received 159 votes out of a possible 186, while the U.S. received 146. Russia also successful stood for a seat, obtaining 162 votes. Saudi Arabia received 106 votes, edging out Jordan (103 votes) for a seat earmarked for the Arab group.

The other countries referred to by Ros-Lehtinen – China, Syria, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Vietnam – are among 27 board members elected previously, which will remain in their seats until 2013.

UNESCO has a checkered history, and both the Reagan administration and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government pulled out in the 1980s, citing mismanagement and accusing it of pursuing an anti-Western agenda.

President George W. Bush in September 2002 announced at the U.N. General Assembly that the U.S. would return to UNESCO. The Bush administration, which said the agency had made important reforms since Koichiro Matsuura of Japan become director-general in 1999, rejoined in 2003.

Alongside continuing improvements under Matsuura and his successor, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, some blocs of member states have at times stoked controversy with politicized actions, including attempts to counter UNESCO’s mandate to promote freedom of expression.

UNESCO, Irina Bokova

UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova. (UNESCO photo by Michel Ravassard)

In 2006, UNESCO’s Executive Board endorsed an Organization of Islamic Cooperation-initiated motion arising from the furor over the publication of cartoons satirizing Mohammed.

In 2008, UNESCO withdrew its patronage of an event called Online Free Expression Day, after a media freedom watchdog, which organized the program, published material including criticism of countries like China, Iran, Cuba and Saudi Arabia for online censorship. The group accused UNESCO of caving in after complaints from some of the criticized regimes.

In 2009, as Matsuura’s second term nearer its end, Islamic, Arab and African states put forward an Egyptian candidate who had sparked controversy by threatening to burn any Israeli books found in an Egyptian library. In a highly-charged vote, the Egyptian was ultimately narrowly defeated by Bokova.

Last year the U.S. successfully led efforts to block a decision taken by UNESCO in 2008 to establish a life sciences award named for, and funded by, the autocratic leader of Equatorial Guinea. The U.S. helped to shut down a decision to allow Iran to host UNESCO’s annual World Philosophy Day event last November.

Also last year, the UNESCO board passed resolutions that effectively backed Palestinian claims to sites whose significance for Jews goes back thousands of years, including the traditional burial place in Hebron of biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.