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UNESCO in crucial vote on Palestine membership

The UN's cultural agency faces a crucial vote Monday on whether to grant Palestine full member status, a move that would see it lose a fifth of its budget, with the US withdrawing it funding

AFP , Monday 31 Oct 2011
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The vote at UNESCO's general assembly comes the same day Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki has been scheduled to address the organisation. UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said Friday she was very concerned about the possible withdrawal of US funding. "This would have serious consequences, programmes would have to be cut, our budget would have to be rebalanced," she told AFP in an interview. "The US administration supports UNESCO, but (the Americans) are trapped by laws adopted 20 years ago," Bokova said, adding that she was "neutral" on the question of Palestinian membership.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has been holding its general assembly in Paris since last Tuesday. Just like the UN General Assembly in New York, the question of Palestinian membership has been put on its agenda.

But while as a permanent UN Security Council member the US has a veto that it says it will exercise at the UN General Assembly, no one has a veto at UNESCO. There, a two-thirds majority of its 193 voting members suffices.

Arab states braved intense US and French diplomatic pressure to bring the motion before the UNESCO executive committee earlier this month, which passed it by 40 votes in favour to four against, with 14 abstentions.

The four votes against came from the US, Germany, Romania and Latvia, while most of the abstentions were from European nations. The Palestinians currently have observer status at UNESCO.

But diplomats told AFP that it would have no problem garnering the required votes to become a full member, which would automatically spark a crisis between Washington and UNESCO.

Two laws passed by Israel's staunchest ally in the 1990s ban the financing of any United Nations organisation that accepts Palestine as a full member. That means UNESCO stands to lose $70 million, or 22 percent of its annual budget.

"There's no chance that a Republican-controlled Congress is going to amend that legislation," said a diplomatic source at UNESCO, who asked not to be named.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland spelled out the US position last week. "We've made the point that there are very clear red lines in US legislation, and that if those are crossed in UNESCO, that the legislation is triggered," she said.

The United States only returned to UNESCO in 2003, having boycotted the organisation since 1984 over what State Department calls "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.

US ambassador to UNESCO David Killion has said that "granting the Palestinians full membership now in a specialised agency such as UNESCO is premature". Several European countries, including France, agree. The Europeans want to convince the Palestinians to be satisfied for now with joining three UNESCO conventions, including on World Heritage, which is possible for a non-member state.

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