Paris – Palestine achieved a significant breakthrough in its bid for recognition as a state on October 31. In a landslide vote of 107 in favour and 14 against, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) admitted Palestine as its 195th member.
Tension was high as, in the weeks leading up to the vote, the US (which finances 22% of UNESCO’s budget) had indicated that it would be likely to cut off its contributions if the organisation admitted Palestine. Right after the vote, the State Department announced an immediate cut of US$60 million.
As the general conference voting began, it was not clear if enough countries would stand up against such pressure to reach the two-thirds majority required under UNESCO’s constitution to admit any state that is not a member of the United Nations. Palestine’s application for UNESCO membership was submitted by Yasser Arafat in 1989, but was approved by UNESCO’s Executive Board only earlier in October. Meanwhile, Palestine has held observer status.
In September 2011 Palestine applied for full membership of the United Nations, and the question is now before the UN Security Council, where it is subject to veto by any one of the permanent five members (China, France, Germany, the US and the UK).
The US funding blackmail of UNESCO did not prevail, however. During the roll call vote, in a rare departure from formal UN decorum, delegates cheered when some countries (especially France, Austria, Russia and Spain) broke ranks with the US to cast their vote alongside the Arab states, the G-77, the Non-Aligned Movement and most of the African, Asian and Latin American states, many of whose delegates (like Venezuela) pronounced their vote in ringing tones and even in several languages to emphasise their commitment.
To its shame, the Australian Labor government voted against admitting Palestine, lining up with the US and only 12 other countries: Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, Netherlands, Palau, Panama, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Sweden and Vanuatu.
A further 52 countries abstained in the vote (notably Italy, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland and the UK, as well as most of the Pacific island states, including New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru and Tonga). It was sad to see that Timor Leste, which relied so much on international solidarity for recognition of its own statehood, was one of a dozen countries that did not show up for the vote.
When the results of the vote were declared, showing overwhelming support for Palestine, the huge conference hall broke into sustained applause and cheers, with some delegates dancing in the aisles.
In explaining their vote, many of those who had opposed Palestine’s admission asserted their support for a Palestinian state, but showed the hollowness of such “support” by echoing the US assertion that it was premature, that it might interfere with the process going on at the United Nations Security Council or that the problem has to be solved bilaterally by Israel and Palestine. In a bizarre twist, Israel criticised the vote of 107 countries as “unilateral” and branded it “a tragedy for UNESCO”, adding that UNESCO should deal with “science and not science fiction by voting for a non-existent state”.
The Cuban delegate termed this a “historic moment”, saying: “The overwhelming vote reaffirms the universal character of UNESCO, and redresses injustice”. The delegate from Sri Lanka congratulated UNESCO for voting “as the conscience of the world community” and not on the basis of “what is OK in New York, or flies on the [Capitol] Hill, or plays in Peoria”. He rejected as specious the argument that admitting Palestine to UNESCO would be counterproductive to its bid to join the United Nations, asserting that it would rather bolster this process.
In responding to the vote, the Palestinian delegate said it restored some of Palestine’s natural rights and would help to protect its ancient civilisation and heritage, which are under threat. “After so many years since Palestine first sought admission, UNESCO has finally turned a new page for humanity in admitting the world’s cradle of civilisation and peace.”