Welcoming Palestine to UNESCO

With Palestine getting full membership to the UNESCO, it also serves as a political reminder of its bid for statehood.

Palestine Unesco
 UNESCO delegates applaud after the General Conference admits Palestine as UNESCO member state in Paris [EPA]

It may not ease the daily pain of occupation and blockade or the endless anguish of refugee status and exile or the continual humiliations of discrimination and second class citizenship, but the admission of Palestine to membership in UNESCO is for so many reasons a step forward in the long march of the Palestinian people toward the dignity of sunlight! The event illuminates the path to self-determination, but also brings into the open some of the most formidable obstacles that must be cleared if further progress is to be made.

The simple arithmetic of the UNESCO vote, 107 in favor, 14 opposed, 52 abstentions, and 21 absent fails to tell the story of really one sided was the vote. Toting up the for and against votes obscures the wicked arm twisting, otherwise known as geopolitics, that induced such marginal political entities as Samoa, Solomon Islands, Palau, and Vanuatu to stand against the weight of global opinion and international morality by voting against Palestinian admission as member to UNESCO. This is not meant to insult such small states, but to lament that their vulnerability to American pressure should distort the real contours of world public opinion. Such a distortion makes a minor mockery of the idea that governments can offer adequate representation to the peoples of the world. It also illustrates the degree to which formal political independence may hide a condition of de facto dependence as well as make plain that voting within the United Nations System should never be confused with aspirations to establish a global democracy in substance as well as form. As an aside this consistently compromised electoral process within the UN System demonstrates the urgency and desirability of establishing a global peoples parliament that could at least provide a second voice whenever global debate touches on issues of human concern.

What is most impressive about the UNESCO vote is that despite the US diplomacy of threat and intimidation, the Palestinian application for membership carried the day. There was enough adherence to principle by enough states to provide the necessary 2/3rds vote even in the face of a determined American diplomatic effort, bolstered by threatening punitive action in the form of refusing further financial support for UNESCO, which amounts to some $60m for the current year, and overall 22 per cent of the organization’s annual budget of $643m in 2010-11 (which is projected to be $653m for 2011-12). Actually this withholding of funds is an American policy embedded in legislation that derives from the early 1990s, and cannot be attributed to the ridiculously pro-Israeli present Congress that would have acted in a similar fashion, and probably feels deprived of an opportunity to draw fresh UN blood. Indeed rabid pro-Israel members of Congress are already showboating their readiness to do more to damage so as to exhibit their devotion to Israel.  This unseemly demand to punish the UN for taking a principled stand is worse than just being a poor loser, it amounts to a totally irresponsible willingness to damage the indispensable work of cultural and societal cooperation on international levels just to show that there is a price to be paid to defy the will of Israel, with the United States as willing enforcement agent. It is an excellent moment for the governments of other states to demonstrate their commitment to human wellbeing by helping to restore confidence in the UN. One way to do this is to help overcome this unanticipated UNESCO budget deficit, and what would deliver a most message to Washington and Tel Aviv would be a collection campaign that generated more funds than those lost. It seems a useful opportunity to show once and for all that such strong arm fiscal tactics are no longer acceptable and don’t even work in the post-colonial world. Such an outcome would also confirm that the geopolitical tectonic plates of world order have shifted in such a way as to give increasing prominence to such countries as China, India, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa all of whom voted to admit Palestine to UNESCO. At least for the moment in this limited setting we can obtain a glimpse of a genuine ‘new world order’! The Security Council has proved unable and unwilling to change its two-tier structure to accommodate these shifts, but these countries can by their own action become more active players on the global stage. It is not necessary to wait until France and Britain read the tea leaves accurately enough to realize that it is time for them to give up their permanent place at the UNSC.

The Americans have lost their moral right to leadership in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict,it is time for Europe to step into the fray.”

Micheal Rocard-former Socialist party Prime Minister of France

Perhaps, more enduring that the vote itself is the reinforced image of the wildly inappropriate role given to the United States to act as intermediary and peacemaker in seeking to resolve the underlying conflict and ensure the realization of Palestinian rights that have been so cruelly denied for more than six decades. Observers as diverse as Michel Rocard, the former Socialist Party Prime Minister of France, and Mouin Rabbani, a widely respected Palestinian analyst of the conflict, agree that this effort to thwart an elemental Palestinian quest for legal recognition and political participation, demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt, although such a reality has long been apparent to even the most casual serious observer of the conflict, that the time has come to disqualify the United States from presiding over the resolution of this conflict. It has always verged on the absurd to expect justice, or even fairness, to flow from a diplomatic framework in which the openly and extremely partisan ally of the dominant party can put itself forward as ‘the honest broker’ in negotiations in a setting where the weaker side is subject to military rule and exile. To have given credibility to this tripartite charade for this long is itself mainly a commentary on the weakness of the Palestinian position, and their desperate need to insist henceforth on a balanced international framework if negotiations are ever to have the slightest prospect of producing a sustainable and just peace.

Leadership role lacking

Yet to find a new framework does not mean following Rocard’s incredibly Orientalist prescription: “The Americans have lost their moral right to leadership in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is time for Europe to step into the fray.”  As if Europe had recently demonstrated its capacity for rendering justice by the NATO intervention in Libya! As if the colonial heritage had been rebranded as a positive credential! As if the Americans ever had a ‘moral right’ to resolve this conflict that was only now lost in the UNESCO voting chamber! It is not clear how a new diplomacy for the conflict that is finally responsive to the situation should be structured, but it should reflect at the very least the new realities of an emergent multipolarity skewed toward the non-West. To be provocative for once, maybe Turkey, Brazil, Egypt, and India could constitute themselves as a more legitimate quartet than that horribly discredited version of a quartet composed of the United States, the EU, Russia, and the UN.

Returning to the UNESCO controversy, it is worth noting the words of denunciation used by Victoria Nuland, the designated State Department spokesperson. She described the vote as being “regrettable, premature” contending that it “undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” Even Orwell might be dazed by such a diversionary formulation. Why was the vote regrettable and premature? After all to work for the preservation of religious sacred sites within the halls of UNESCO is hardly subversive of global stability by any sane reckoning.
And after enduring occupation for more than 44 years, it qualifies as comedic to insist that Palestine must not yet in from the cold because such entry would be ‘premature.’ And how can it be claimed that Palestine participation within the UN System ‘undermines’ the ‘shared goal’ of regional peace in the Middle East? The only answer that makes any sense is say that whatever Israel says is so , and the United States will act accordingly, that is, do whatever Israel wants it to do in the global arena. Such kneejerk geopolitics is not only contrary to elementary considerations of law and equity, it is also monumentally irrational and self-defeating from the perspective of national wellbeing and future peace.

Serving common interests

What in the end may be most troubling about this incident is the degree that it confirms a growing impression that both the United States and Israel have lost the capacity to serve their own security interests and rationally promote the wellbeing of their own people. This is serious enough with respect to the damage done to such societies by their own maladroit behavior, but dealing with these two military heavyweights who both possess arsenals of nuclear weaponry is sheer madness. These are two holdout government that continue to rest their future security almost exclusively on an outmoded reliance on hard power calculations and strategy, the effects are potentially catastrophic for the region and the world. When Israel alienates Turkey, its only surviving friend in the Middle East, and then refuses to take the minimal steps to heal the wounds caused by its recklessly violent behavior, one has to conclude that the Israeli sense of reality has fallen on hard times! And when Israel pushes the United States to lose this much social capital on the global stage by standing up for its defiance of international law as in relation to rejecting the recommendations of the Goldstone Report or refusing to censure the expansion of its unlawful settlements or the collective punishment of Gaza, there is no longer much doubt that Israeli foreign policy is driven by domestic extremism that then successfully solicits Washington for ill-advised backing.

The situation in the United States is parallel. Many excuse, or at least explain, America’s unconditionally irrational support for Israel as produced by the fearsome leverage exerted by AIPAC over electoral politics in the country as practiced by Congress and rationalized by conservative think tanks. But what this is saying is that the United States Government has also lost the capacity to pursue a foreign policy in a crucial region of the world that expresses its own national interests, much less provides guidance based on a wider commitment to a stable and just Middle East. The Arab Spring created a second chance so to speak to redeem the United States from its long embrace of vicious autocratic rule in the region, but this opportunity is being squandering on the altar of subservience to the vindictive whims, expansionist visions, and paranoid fears of the Netanyahu/Lieberman governing coalition in Israel.

Welcoming Palestine to UNESCO is a day of celebration and vindication for the Palestinian people, and a political victory for PLO leadership, but it is also a day when all of us should reflect upon the wider Palestinian tragedy and struggle, and seek to take further steps forward. UNESCO has given a momentary respite to those who were completely disillusioned by what to expect from the UN or the system of states when it comes to Palestinian aspirations, and instead put their hope and efforts into the initiatives of global civil society, especially the growing BDS campaign. Now is not the time to shift attention away from such initiatives, but it does suggest that there are many symbolic battlefields in the ongoing legitimacy war being waged for Palestinian self-determination, and several of these lie within the network of institutions comprising the United Nations.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).

He is currently serving his third year of a six year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.