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December 15, 2017

UNESCO, UNWTO and Palestine: USA and Israel leaving UNESCO


At the recent UNWTO General Assembly in Chengdu,  China, one discussion point was the acceptance of Palestine as a full member. Backroom diplomacy, pressure by Israel to leave UNWTO and pressure by the United States caused for Palestine to postpone a vote on their full membership to the world tourism body for another 2 years.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has a close partnership with World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). In 2011  UNESCO accepted Palestine as a full member. Palestine applied for full membership in UNWTO.

This triggered a US law which cut off American funding for any organization that recognized an independent Palestine. The US had previously paid for 22 percent ($80 million) of UNESCO’s annual budget.

This seemed strange because UNESCO is such an inoffensive-seeming organization: Its most prominent function is designating and protecting official international landmarks, called World Heritage Sites — places like The Alamo and the Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon. What possible reason could the US have for quitting an organization devoted to culture and science?

The reason is Palestine. The reason is Israel.

First, the US cut funding for UNESCO after Palestine was accepted as a member state, now US President Trump will be leaving UNESCO in 2018, and minutes later this was echoed by Israel. The US voting rights had been eliminated on and off because of the United States falling behind membership fees.

In 1984, the Reagan administration took out its frustration with the UN on UNESCO over accusations of anti-US, pro-Soviet bias at the UN (it took until 2002 for the US to rejoin). It’s also why the Palestinians, frustrated with the failure of US-sponsored negotiations to produce a peace agreement, pushed to be recognized as a UNESCO member-state: It was a venue in which they stood a real chance at gaining symbolic statehood status, and thus, in theory, putting more diplomatic pressure on Israel to sit down and negotiate.

The Palestinians won their 2011 UNESCO membership by at 107-14 margin (though 52 states abstained). However, this has produced little in the way of progress on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement — and the consequences of the subsequent aid cutoff for UNESCO have been severe. Klaus Hüfner, an expert on UNESCO at the Global Policy Forum, termed it a “financial crisis.”

The United States is not a member of the UNWTO. WOuld this mean the US will never be a member as long as a discussion is ongoing for Palestine to join the tourism body? Palestine is now an observer. Will Israel leave UNWTO? It waits to be seen and it is dirty selfish politics after all.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the US decision to leave UNESCO as “brave and moral”, a statement said.

The head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voiced “profound regret” on Thursday over the United States’ decision to withdraw from the agency.

“This is a loss to UNESCO. This is a loss to the United Nations family. This is a loss for multilateralism,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in a statement.

“Universality is critical to UNESCO’s mission to strengthen international peace and security in the face of hatred and violence, to defend human rights and dignity,” she added, noting that UNESCO would continue to build a more just, peaceful, equitable 21st century.

Ms. Bokova recalled that in 2011, when the US suspended payment of its membership contributions, she was convinced that the UNESCO never mattered as much for the US or vice versa.

“This is all the more true today,” she continued “when the rise of violent extremism and terrorism calls for new long-term responses for peace and security, to counter racism and antisemitism, to fight ignorance and discrimination.”

Ms. Bokova spelled out her belief that the American people support UNESCO’s actions to harness new learning technologies; enhance scientific cooperation, for ocean sustainability; promote freedom of expression, defend journalists’ safety; empower girls and women as change-makers and peacebuilders; bolster societies facing emergencies, disasters and conflicts; and advance literacy and quality education.

“Despite the withholding of funding, since 2011, we have deepened the partnership between the United States and UNESCO, which has never been so meaningful,” she underscored. “Together, we have worked to protect humanity’s shared cultural heritage in the face of terrorist attacks and to prevent violent extremism through education and media literacy.”

The partnership between UNESCO and the US has ‘drawn on shared values’

The Director General gave examples of collaborating during that time, such as launching the Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education and celebrating World Press Freedom Day in Washington, D.C., with the National Endowment for Democracy.

She also mentioned a long history of joint endeavours, including working together with the late Samuel Pisar, Honorary Ambassador and Special Envoy for Holocaust Education, to promote education for remembrance of the Holocaust across the world to fight antisemitism and genocide today; cooperating with major US companies Microsoft, Cisco, Procter & Gamble and Intel to keep girls in school and nurture technologies for quality learning; and working with the US Geological Survey, US Army Corps of Engineers, and US professional societies to advance research for the sustainable management of water resources, agriculture.

“The partnership between UNESCO and the United States has been deep, because it has drawn on shared values,” Ms. Bokova stressed.

Citing lines in UNESCO’s 1945 Constitution by US Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish – ‘since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed’ – she said this vision has never been more relevant, and added that the US helped inspire the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention.

Calling the agency’s work “key to strengthen the bonds of humanity’s common heritage in the face of forces of hatred and division,” she noted the value of World Heritage cites in the US, such as the Statue of Liberty, as being not just as a defining US symbol but that it speaks for people across the world.

“UNESCO will continue to work for the universality of this Organization, for the values we share, for the objectives we hold in common, to strengthen a more effective multilateral order and a more peaceful, more just world,” Ms. Bokova concluded.

The agency is known for designating world heritage sites such as Syria’s Palmyra and the US Grand Canyon.

Unesco head Irina Bokova earlier called the US withdrawal a matter of “profound regret”.

She admitted, however, that “politicisation” had “taken its toll” on the organisation in recent years.

The withdrawal represented a loss to the “UN family” and to multilateralism, Ms Bokova added.

The US withdrawal will become effective at the end of December 2018 – until then, the US will remain a full member. The US will establish an observer mission at the Paris-based organisation to replace its representation, the state department said.


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