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Caution: Penalty for burning bridges is solitary confinement

stephen clarke, 1 November 2011

By Emily Clarke

The vote that granted Palestine full membership of the UN Cultural and Educational Agency (UNESCO) could potentially have wide-ranging consequences for the role of international organisations within international affairs and their relationship with the United States.


The UNESCO bid forms a part of the Palestinian effort to bring their pursuit of an independent state onto the international arena, believing that gaining “international consensus” and support for statehood in this way will have a greater chance of success than the negotiations that continue to stall between the Israeli and Palestinian authorities. The strong backing within UNESCO for the Palestinians’ application, which saw 107 members voting for and only 14 against (52 abstained and 14 were absent)seems to vindicate this belief, especially as there is a possibility that it will lead to more successful bids, making Palestine a full member of other UN organisations. However, these developments are leaving the US in an increasingly difficult situation.

A law passed by Congress in the 1990s forbids the US from funding UN bodies that recognise Palestine, meaning that the US has already pledged to withdraw the $70-80 million dollars it gives to UNESCO every year: approximately a fifth of its annual budget. The difficulty here is that UNESCO’s operations might go into decline, but on the other hand another nation might step in and provide the missing funds, for example one of the BRIC nations, all of whom voted for full Palestinian membership. If the same occurred in other UN organisations the US might find itself overtaken by other member states who gain increasing influence through the resources they supply. America is already in a delicate position with regards to international law, with several countries refusing to sign bilateral immunity agreements with the US, instead confirming full allegiance to the aims of the International Criminal Court, despite US threats of withholding aid. Furthermore America is having to work hard to maintain support within the Middle East as the Arab Spring takes its course; having gained some soft power by deliberately taking a back seat over Libya, the US may stand to lose it again by taking such a strong stance in this case. Cynicism amongst Palestinians about the credibility of the US as a mediator between themselves and the Israelis is already high and a lack of flexibility over the UNESCO vote is only likely to increase it. Furthermore given that only 13 other countries voted against full Palestinian membership, (as opposed to abstaining) the image America portrays of itself is of a nation who believes that there cannot be “international consensus” unless they agree to it. America certainly isn’t alone in hoping for successful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that lead to a viable two-party solution – Britain and other EU countries sympathise with this method – however, given that there is still a long way to go in the peace process, America must avoid being classed as a hindrance rather than a help within the wider international community.

It remains to be seen whether or not US and Israeli predictions come true about the damage this vote will cause to the Middle Eastern peace process, especially if Palestine successfully applies for world heritage status for historical sites within the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Undoubtedly, Israeli-Palestine relations continue to be a political minefield and UNESCO would be advised to tread carefully. However, for the sake of America’s reputation within the international arena they too must be careful not to isolate themselves from opinions that are becoming increasingly universal. In 1984 the US withdrew from UNESCO due to the latter’s increasing politicisation. Having re-joined UNESCO in 2003 in a bid to prove their adherence to human rights and human security America needs to avoid repeating history and cutting out its options for participation in international organisations that are steadily increasing in importance and influence.

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