UNESCO: Education, science, culture... and politics

UNESCO: Education, science, culture... and politics

By Harry Hagopian
4 Nov 2011

If the universe is non-ethical by our present standards, we must really consider these standards and reconstruct our ethics. - H. G .Wells (English author, 1866-1946)

With large doses of speculation and expectation intertwined, the political cliff-hanger for me this week was not the timely election of a technocrat - Abdel Rahim al-Keib - as the new interim Prime Minister of Libya, or the costly tug-of-war between Syria and the Arab League over the fate of the blood-spattered popular revolts in this history-rich country. Rather, it was the fact that UNESCO became the first UN agency to admit ‘Palestine’ as a full member, coming on the heels of an application lodged by the Palestinians on 23rd September seeking UN recognition as a full member state.

So assuming that the procedural aspects of membership are duly ratified, ‘Palestine’ now joins the likes of South Sudan and the Faroe Islands as the 195th member of this Paris-based organisation. But the repercussions - also speculated and expected in advance - have already kicked in with the USA stating that it will no longer pay its membership fees which constitute one-fifth of the UNESCO annual budget. Let us recall that the USA had already boycotted this organisation from 1984 till 2003 for what the State Department described at the time as a ‘growing disparity between US foreign policy and UNESCO goals’. Besides, an American law passed in the 1990s still bars the provision of funds to any UN agency that admits Palestinians as full members before the conclusion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace pact.

Given this sense of political déjà-vu and brinkmanship, what are some cursory observations one might highlight today?

• Let me start off by stating the obvious in that the UNESCO membership is clearly viewed as part of a broader push toward international recognition for the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN and a concomitant way to ramp up the international pressure against Israel. Simply put, Palestinians and their allies view this exercise as a warm-up for the more decisive - and in my opinion less conclusive - discussions at the UN Security Council on 11th November over the admission of Palestine as a full member state.

• With widespread applause greeting the result amongst the 173 countries voting at the General Conference, 107 were in favour, 14 against and with 52 abstentions. Voting against the motion were Portugal, Colombia and the Czech Republic. Those three countries are critical since they also sit on the UN Security Council as non-permanent members and simple mathematics would indicate that if they also opposed the UN statehood bid - as they did with UNESCO - the Palestinians could fail to secure the nine votes essential for their political choice.

• The EU showed once more that it still cannot present a coherent stance on foreign policy issues. Spain, France, Ireland, Austria, Finland and Greece voted 'yes' whilst Germany, the Czech Republic and Sweden voted 'no', and the key abstentions came from the UK, Italy and Denmark. Interestingly enough though, a possible reflection of one shift in global politics could be detected in the fact that Latvia, Iceland, Tuvalu, Nauru and other island states that have almost always stalwartly supported the USA in international fora, decided to part ways with the USA and support the motion instead.

• Arab states were instrumental in lobbying for the motion, as were the BRIC-S group of developing countries comprising China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa that also voted in favour of Palestinian membership.

• However, numbers aside, this qualified success by the Palestinian Authority can also be read as part of the ongoing rivalry between the PNA, led by its president Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas in Gaza. After all, Abbas had scored a psychological victory with his statehood bid at the UN Security Council, but then lost ground to Hamas over the prisoners’ swap when Gilad Shalit was exchanged for Palestinian prisoners. This breakthrough somewhat tilts the score back in Abbas’ favour - at least in important symbolic and emotive terms.

• Palestinians are well aware that they are defying the USA and - as the Bloomberg news agency pointed out - this latest step will weigh heavily against them in terms of US national security considerations. However, I would argue that this persistence, let alone defiance, are signs of the incremental despair and anger felt by many Palestinians with a US Administration they deem has singularly failed to play the honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They also feel equal disappointment with the efforts of the Quartet to date that has been more of an Onetet whose choreography has largely been US-led and whose achievements have been decidedly arguable. So what we see is a propensity these days by the Palestinians to buck the trend just a little and to become less beholden to the USA and more grassroots-oriented in an attempt to synchronise with the Arab Awakening across the MENA region where the popular masses are struggling for their citizenship rights, dignity and democratic values. In some sense, Palestinians fear they will be left behind and are therefore creating their own ‘Spring’ momentum - irrespective of what political season will follow in terms of claims or achievements.

• President Obama’s Administration is once more sending contradictory messages to the region. On the one hand, it is now supporting the self-determining instincts of some uprisings (such as in Libya or Syria) whilst opposing others (such as in Bahrain or even Yemen). In other words, it is being inconsistent, and no matter the political gloss being put on it publicly, this sharp tergiversation has not gone unnoticed by the Arab masses and regional media as they re-build their states and vet their future allies. This is another regrettable outcome since it is neither in the strategic interests of the USA nor in those of the MENA countries to deepen this growing rift.

• More locally, the worn-out mantra that nothing is achievable for Israel and the Palestinians except through direct negotiations no longer cuts any mustard with many politicians - nor for that matter with large swathes of the populace in the MENA region and further afield. As the Qatari Emir stated earlier this week, rulers in the region are well aware of the emerging realities in their own backyards and have to act accordingly.

• The late Abba Eban, a former Israeli foreign minister, is quoted as saying after the Geneva Peace Conference in 1973 that “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. Much as I would agree that there is indeed some substance to this statement, it is also clear that Israel today is fulfilling this very same prophecy as its present government pursues a blinkered policy of prevarication, obfuscation and colonisation. The decision of the Israeli Prime Minister, for instance, to build 2000 new settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as to suspend funds that are transferred to the Palestinian Authority, as ‘punishments’ for Palestinian ‘misbehaviour’ are examples of self-defeating tactical errors. After all, the irony is that a large tranche of those money transfers goes toward beefing up Palestinian security forces in the West Bank that in turn enforce security and deter any terrorist or violent acts against Israel too.

• However, given that the US Administration is cutting off roughly $70 million from UNESCO in terms of its contribution, and as the UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova pleads with the US not to withhold those monies, is it not perhaps practicable for the Arab League to become proactive and put its money where its proverbial mouth is by making up for this shortfall and in the process, sending out a clear pan-Arab message?

• Finally, let me support a practical suggestion that ‘Palestine’ should now propose declaring a number of shrines in the Holy Land as ‘heritage sites’ - including the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem - as a way of trying to deflect the argument that this move was entirely about politics and not at all about education, science or culture.

The UNESCO motto proclaims proudly that it stands for “Building peace in the minds of men and women”. In a world where ethics are sorely wanting and need reconstruction, and where local issues are interlocked with regional ones, I trust ‘Palestine’ will contribute toward this lofty ideal and not digress from it, let alone be coerced to detract from it.

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net

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