News & Politics

Palestinians Admitted as Full Member to UNESCO; US Cuts Funding in Response

The acceptance of Palestine to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a step on the way to full UN membership.

 Palestinians won entry to UNESCO on Monday, scoring a symbolic victory in their battle for full UN membership, prompting the US to cut its funding to the body and warn with ally Israel that the move harmed hopes for peace.

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

"Accepting Palestine into UNESCO is a victory for (our) rights, for justice and for freedom," Mahmud Abbas' spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina quoted the Palestinian president as saying.

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Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki, who was at the UN cultural body's Paris headquarters for the vote, hailed "a historic moment that gives Palestine back some of its rights," while Israel said it distanced peace.

"This is a unilateral Palestinian manoeuvre which will bring no change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement," the Israeli foreign ministry said in a statement.

The United States said it would cut its funding to the international body, which amounts to about 22 percent of UNESCO's annual budget.

"We were to have made a 60 million dollar payment to UNESCO in November and we will not be making that payment," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

Nuland said the Palestinian admission "triggers longstanding (US) legislative restrictions which will compel the United States to refrain from making contributions to UNESCO."

The United States, Israel's top ally, in the 1990s banned the financing of any UN organization that accepts Palestine as a full member.

The November payment amounts to a tranche of what US officials say is a total annual US contribution of $80 million (57 million euros) to the UN organization.

Earlier White House spokesman Jay Carney said the UNESCO move was "premature and undermines the international community's shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East."

But Malki insisted there was no connection between the UNESCO move and the possible resumption of peace negotiations, stalled by Israel's ongoing construction of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.

"I don't think that our status at UNESCO will have a negative impact on relaunching peace talks," Malki said. "There is no link between the two issues."

Following the vote, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had urged nations to maintain their support for UNESCO.

"This is about peace, identity, culture, heritage and freedom of expression," she said. "The EU therefore urges all parties to pause for reflection before taking precipitate actions."

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

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

Israel's ambassador Nimrod 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 UN specialised agencies and in New York."

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

As a permanent Security Council member the United States says it will veto any resolution granting full UN membership to the Palestinians, but no one can veto measures 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.

Washington boycotted UNESCO from 1984 to 2003 over what the State Department called "growing disparity between US foreign policy and UNESCO goals."

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