Middle East

UNESCO gives Palestinians full membership

Delegates cheer after they approved the membership of Palestine in a vote of 107-14 with 52 abstentions, during the session of UNESCO's 36th General Conference, in Paris, Monday Oct. 31, 2011. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier


PARIS: Palestinians won a crucial vote to enter UNESCO as a full member on Monday, scoring a symbolic victory in their battle for statehood ahead of a similar vote at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

"The general assembly decides to admit Palestine as a member of UNESCO," said the resolution adopted by 107 countries, with 14 voting against and 52 abstaining.

"This vote will help erase a tiny part of the injustice done to the Palestinian people," Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki told the assembly as the vote took place.

France, which had voiced serious doubts about the motion, approved it along with almost all Arab, African, Latin American and Asian nations, including China and India.

Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia and Germany voted against, while Japan and Britain abstained.

The United States and Israel are set now to withdraw their funding from the U.N. cultural body, while other U.N. agencies may have to debate the thorny issue.

The U.S. has slammed the move as counterproductive and premature, while Israel's ambassador Nimrod Barkan admitted before the vote that he was resigned to the Palestinians gaining entry.

Staunch Israel ally the United States in the 1990s banned the financing of any United Nations organisation that accepts Palestine as a full member, meaning the body would lose $70 million, or 22 percent of its annual budget.

U.S. ambassador to UNESCO David Killion said after the vote that "this action today will complicate our ability to support UNESCO programmes."

Barkan warned that those who voted for the resolution would lose influence over Israel.

"It certainly will weaken their ability to have any influence on the Israeli position," Barkan told AFP.

Barkan slammed countries that "have adopted a science fiction version of reality by admitting a non-existent state to the science organisation ... UNESCO should deal in science not science fiction."

He admitted that the vote, while symbolic, could have a knock-on effect: "There is potential for a cascading effect of this resolution on many other U.N. specialized agencies and in New York."

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas submitted the request for membership of the UN General Assembly in September, and the Security Council is to meet on November 11 to decide whether to hold a formal vote on the application.

As a permanent U.N. Security Council member the US has a veto that it says it will exercise at the UN General Assembly, but no one has a veto at UNESCO.

Arab states braved intense US and French diplomatic pressure to bring the motion before the UNESCO executive committee in October, which passed it by 40 votes in favour to four against, with 14 abstentions.

The Palestinians previously had observer status at UNESCO.

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said Friday she was very concerned about the possible withdrawal of U.S. funding.

"This would have serious consequences, programs would have to be cut, our budget would have to be rebalanced," she told AFP.

"The U.S. administration supports UNESCO, but [the Americans] are trapped by laws adopted 20 years ago," Bokova said, adding she was "neutral" on the question of Palestinian membership.

The United States only returned to UNESCO in 2003, having boycotted the organization since 1984 over what State Department calls "growing disparity between U.S. foreign policy and UNESCO goals."

Despite the 20-year U.S. boycott, President Barack Obama now considers UNESCO a strategic interest and Washington sees it as a useful multilateral way to spread certain Western values.

The Europeans had tried to convince the Palestinians to be satisfied for now with joining three UNESCO conventions, including on World Heritage, which is possible for a non-member state.





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