UNESCO Factsheet

Next Monday, unless the Palestinians can be persuaded to back down, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will vote to accept Palestine as a full member, triggering an automatic cutoff of U.S. funding and wreaking havoc with many of the agency’s programs.

Under legislation adopted by Congress more than 15 years ago, the Obama administration is mandated to withdraw from any U.N. agency that accepts Palestine as a full member state in the absence of a mutually agreed peace treaty with Israel.

The United States funds about 22 percent of the UNESCO budget – about $70 million a year. According to thewebsite of the U.S. mission to UNESCO, some of the programs that will be affected include:

  • Systems to provide early warning on tsunamis including special coastal hazards affecting Haiti.
  • The study of earthquake threats in the Eastern Mediterranean, including Turkey which only yesterday was hit by a major deadly quake.
  • Literacy training throughout the world.
  • Vocational schools in Afghanistan.
  • The “Teach for Lebanon” NGO.
  • General support for World Heritage sites, including the Borobudur Buddhist Temple in Indonesia.
  • Programs to study and preserve the health of the world’s oceans
  • And the list goes on...

In a letter to the Washington Post published Oct. 21, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova wrote:

“UNESCO supports many causes in line with U.S. security interests. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we are helping governments and communities prepare for life after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces. We are bolstering the literacy of the Afghan National Police and are leading the country’s largest education program, reaching some 600,000 learners in 18 provinces. We work with the United States to advance democratic freedoms. Mandated to promote freedom of expression, UNESCO stands up for every journalist attacked or killed across the world. In Tunisia and Egypt, we are leading education reform and training journalists. We target the causes of violent extremism by training teachers in human rights and Holocaust remembrance.”

But writer Jonathan Tobin recently wrote in Commentary: “In recent years, it has taken sides in disputes in Jerusalem, criticizing the work of Israeli archaeologists who have uncovered ancient Jewish sites in the city while saying nothing about the Palestinian Authority’s support for vandalism of antiquities on the Temple Mount by the Muslim body that administers the site. It has also declared ancient Jewish shrines such as the Tomb of Rachel near Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron to be mosques. Should UNESCO follow through on its recognition of Palestine as a member-state, the rush to delegitimize Jewish heritage will be re-doubled.”

UNESCO, headquartered in Paris, pursues its objectives through five major programs: education, natural sciences, social and human sciences, culture, and communication and information.

The Palestinians first brought their proposal for membership earlier in October to the UNESCO executive board which voted by 40-4 with four abstentions to recommend full membership. The four countries that voted against were the United States, Germany, Latvia and Romania. Most European countries abstained. All 13 African states on the board voted in favor except Cote D’Ivoire, which abstained. Many of these same countries are substantial recipients of U.S. aid dollars.

U.S. officials say they have mounted a massive diplomatic effort to try to get friendly countries to put pressure on the Palestinians not to move forward with a vote. These officials say there is widespread international dismay at the prospect of the United States being forced to pull out of this agency that does so much valuable work around the world.

This would not be the first time the United States withdrew from UNESCO, but it would be the first non-voluntary withdrawal. Responding to a perceived anti-Western bias, the United States withheld its contributions and withdrew from the organization in 1984, followed by the United Kingdom in 1985. Following a change of government in 1997, the UK rejoined. The United States rejoined in 2003 when it reached the conclusion that the organization was working positively to address important issues.

So far, the Palestinians have refused to step back despite the harm that their membership will cause to many nations entirely unconnected with the Middle East conflict. Sources close to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have said he is desperate to show his people some tangible success following last week’s prisoner exchange with Israel which boosted the prestige of his Hamas rivals at his expense. A majority of the agency’s 193 member states, whatever their private views, are unwilling to go against the Palestinian bid should it come to a vote.

Why are the Palestinians so anxious to join UNESCO? Apart from their perception that such international acceptance boosts their claims for statehood, they can use membership in all kinds of way to cause problems for Israel. For example, by adhering to the World Heritage Convention, they could seek to have Bethlehem declared a Palestinian heritage site along borders that they would define. Other sites that could be so defined include the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem and Joseph’s Tomb near Nablus, which was looted and razed by Palestinians in 2000 shortly after the IDF handed over control of the site to the Palestinian Authority.

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